Liz Van Volkenburgh

Photo: Liz Van Volkenburgh
College of Arts & Sciences

Dr. Liz Van Volkenburgh is a Professor in the Department of Biology. As a scientist, she encourages others to also perceive themselves as scientists, even those who work in fields unrelated to formal science, as she believes that everyone is curious about the world and tests the nature and substance of the environment around them.

As a biologist, Dr. Van Volkenburgh studies leaf growth. Her most recent research focuses on how corn plants adapt to the stress of dense plantings (neighbor detection). Plants are sensory organisms and are responsive to environmental cues, such as light. Dr. Van Volkenburgh’s research has shown that leaf growth depends directly on light cues, but not necessarily on photosynthesis.

Below, Dr. Volkenburgh recounts a particularly frustrating award process and offers her reflections on it:

Q&A: A Frustrating Challenge

Q. Did you face any challenges during your education or career path?

A. Oh, sure! I think the first time I noticed the effect of being female in a male scientific world was when I was nominated for a biology scholarship to Oxford University (UK) during my senior year of college at Duke University. Two of us competed for the position: a male undergrad doing research on nervous signaling in flies, and me. We were interviewed and I was scared to death. I knew that the guy I was competing with was really admired by the biology faculty (all of whom were men). Most of the faculty in my college enjoyed my company but didn’t encourage me to go forward professionally. When the other guy was selected for the scholarship, I felt it was because I wasn’t hobnobbing with the scientists—they didn’t know me as well and didn’t have as much trust in me. I thought that I wasn’t going to become a scientist. It was a demoralizing experience. Now, many years later, I can see that probably the choice was made correctly and it had nothing to do with that guy being friends with the faculty. More likely, it had to do with that student having embarked early on a research project (I had only helped in the lichen herbarium, but had not done any independent research), and the fact that he was already thinking the same way that the faculty members were thinking. I was interested in different topics, plant physiology and behavior. The selection committee appeared to pick one of their own, who happened to be a guy, but he was also better qualified. I learned over time to pay attention to my science, and not so much to my gender and the difficulties of navigating the system.

Learn more about Dr. Van Volkenburgh via her lab website: