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Treeologist aims to bring tree science to the public

Treeologist Jessica B. Turner-Skoff, PhD
March 22, 2016

The Morton Arboretum has a new kind of scientist on staff: a treeologist. The job, according to the Arboretum's first treeologist, Jessica B. Turner-Skoff, is to help the public understand the benefits of trees, key concepts about tree science and conservation, and the exciting research underway at the Arboretum.

“I want to be a bridge,” she says, “to find new, innovative, and accessible ways to communicate about trees to the public.”

For example, she’s working on an online exhibit about conservation at the Arboretum, collecting acorns to make flour as Native Americans once did, and planning videos to introduce staff scientists and the work they do.

"There’s so much science going on here that will be interesting to nonscientists,” she says.

Turner-Skoff’s grand goals include communicating the important benefits of trees in everyday life, helping the public understand why it’s important to plant a diverse assortment of tree species, and encouraging action to conserve trees in the face of climate change.

“We need to recognize that change is happening, and we need to help our trees deal with it,” she says, pointing to birch trees that are struggling to survive pests as the climate warms, and our native oaks that are failing to reproduce fast enough to replace older trees with new ones.

Turner has known she wanted to work with nature since she was a child.

Of growing up in rural Ohio, she says, “My parents were always saying ‘Go outside. Go play. Go learn.’ ”

She splashed in a nearby pond, dissected owl pellets to discover what the birds ate, and explored the trees around her. 

She studied conservation science at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, and earned a master of science degree in sustainable development and conservation biology at the University of Maryland-College Park. For her doctorate in biology from West Virginia University, she studied wild American ginseng, a native woodland plant that, like many trees, is threatened by overharvesting, climate change, habitat loss, and other pressures.

Along the way, she did an intensive fellowship in scientific outreach and communication at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. She had found her calling.

“The natural world is so amazing—how it works, why it works, and how everything is related,” she says. “That’s what I want to help people understand.”