April 5, 2021 /
Jona Elwell

Women in Forestry and the Environment: Margaret Pooler

For Women’s History Month, we’re profiling some leaders in the environmental, horticultural and/or arboricultural world. 

Next? Research Leader for the US National Arboretum section of the USDA’s primary research arm, the Agricultural Research Service. To put their complex research simply, her team focuses on genetics, genetic resource evaluation, and the genetic improvement of landscape trees and shrubs. They make upgraded, refined plants for our industry so the public can enjoy hardy,  safe plants. Plus, in the case of many ornamental cherries, crape myrtles and redbuds, they’re also pretty.  Read on to find out how she got involved in the environmental field, her favorite genus to research and her thoughts on the underrepresentation of women and minorities in our field. Thanks so much for your time, dedication, and partnership Margaret and USDA-ARS! 

(A) Flowers of ‘Helen Taft’; (B) flowers of ‘Abigail Adams’; and (C) whole plant of ‘Helen Taft’. These are (some of) the plants Margaret and her team has developed and researched. Photo courtesy HortScience.

Casey Trees (CT): We know you work at the Agricultural Research Service, but what exactly does that mean? What do you research and study?

Margaret Pooler (MP): ARS is the primary research arm of the USDA. As an agency, we find solutions to problems facing all aspects of agriculture in the U.S – crop production, animal production, human nutrition, food safety, natural resources. My specific job in this broad mission is to develop improved woody ornamental plants and associated breeding technologies that will be useful to the nursery and landscape industries and ultimately benefit the public. I also oversee the rest of the research projects at the US National Arboretum, which includes plant pathology, breeding, taxonomy, plant production, turf genetics, and genetic resource conservation.

CT: Tell us more about your background and how you got into trees and plants.

MP: I have always been drawn to “nature”, and as a child spent most of my free time outside (this was back when it was common and acceptable for kids to wander around unsupervised, as long as they did their homework and were home for dinner). I knew I wanted to study biology in college and was especially drawn to genetics. When I discovered that I could combine my love of plants and genetics into a career (plant breeding), I never looked back.

CT: It’s been a rough, unusual year for practically everyone, but research and ongoing studies often wait for no one. Do you have some bright spots or memorable moments from 2020 at the Arboretum?

MP: At the risk of sound cliché, the bright spots for me aren’t as much about research, but about the people who kept the research and collections going. I saw staff at all levels who had legitimate excuses to let projects go, but instead went out of their way to ensure that we made progress and did so safely. This ranged from plant propagation and maintenance to pollinations and labwork to collaborations with stakeholders and partners. No one wanted to drop the ball on their colleagues or their own research.

CT: While we grow and plant cultivars, you research and create them! Do you have a favorite plant you developed or studied?

MP: It’s impossible to choose a favorite, but if I had to limit myself to working on just one genus, it would be flowering cherries (Prunus). There are great stories and history and symbolism behind them, and there is so much untapped genetic diversity in the genus that is just waiting to be explored. I also appreciate that they are some of the earliest trees to bloom in the spring, and for many of us they are a welcome sign that winter is on its way out. ‘First Lady’ and ‘Helen Taft’ are my favorite cultivars from the National Arboretum.

CT: Women and women of color are vastly underrepresented in forestry and research fields. What, if anything, do you think needs to change to involve more women and women of color in agricultural research?

MP: I think the most effective way to involve more women and people of color in agriculture is to introduce it at an earlier age. If we don’t show people what a career in agriculture looks like by middle- or high-school, it can be difficult to get it on their radar as a career option in college, especially when there are few mentors or role models to help pull them into this area. People can’t choose a career path if they don’t know that it exists, and they won’t choose it unless someone is showing them all the possibilities of what it could look like for them.

CT: Do you have any advice for women that are aspiring horticulture or agricultural professionals?

MP: Women play a critical role in the world’s agriculture and food security, so we need women to be more involved in agriculture at all levels, including leadership and innovative research. With this in mind, I hope that women will “lean into” opportunities, even if they seem at the time to be out of reach or not aligned with where they think their career needs to go. Most career paths in science are not a straight line, but are characterized by twists and turns that came from fortuitous opportunities and decisions. Trust those opportunities and your own competence and take your seat at the table whenever you can.

Article photo courtesy Adrian Higgins/Washington Post.