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April 4, 2024 54 mins

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What's up, Plant People?? I hope you're well! My guest today is a long-time mentor and friend, Dr. Robert Cox.  Dr. Cox is a restoration ecologist whose wisdom in prairie ecosystems and passion for academia are as deep-rooted as the native species he studies. This episode is full of stories from Dr. Cox's academic adventures, which began in herpetology and evolved into the long-time study of plant ecology. We discussed a little bit of everything, from some of the roles fire and smoke play in plant germination to how Dr. Cox's career has ranged from researcher, to professor, to an Associate Dean's at Texas Tech University. 

We also had an encouraging conversation about the future of our students and education as a whole. Dr. Cox paints an optimistic and inspiring picture of the young minds that walk the halls of higher education today, shaped by the rapid changes of our times. Together, we reflect on the paradigm shift in teaching, moving from information dispensers to mentors in critical thinking. 

Finally, we spent some time chatting about native plants and the roles they play in our world. Ecological restoration has been one of Dr. Cox's major areas of focus throughout his career, and he has some really interesting and meaningful thoughts on what it means to restore a landscape and an ecosystem in light of climate change and our needs for agricultural production. I learned a lot from this conversation and left it feeling encouraged, and I hope that you'll feel the same!

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Planthropology is written, hosted, and produced by Vikram Baliga. Our theme song is "If You Want to Love Me, Babe, by the talented and award-winning composer, Nick Scout.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
What is up?
Plant people it's time oncemore for the Plantthropology
podcast, the show where we diveinto the lives and careers of
some very cool plant people tofigure out why they do what they
do and what keeps them comingback for more.
I'm Vikram Baliga, your hostand your humble guide in this
journey through the sciences and, as always, my dearest friends.
I am so excited to be with youtoday, y'all.
Today's guest is someone thatI've looked up to for quite a

while and I was really excitedto get to talk to him for the
So Dr Robert Cox is theAssociate Dean for Academic and
Student Programs here in theDavis College of Agricultural
Sciences and Natural Resources,which is, you know, just so many
words at Texas Tech University,and he was actually on my
master's committee.
He was one of my committeemembers and for a long time has

been a great friend and mentor,and I was really excited to get
to have him on the show becausehe's actually someone who's
listened to the show for quite awhile, which I think is neat.
So Robert is a restorationecologist and a plant ecologist
and he teaches everything fromrange and plant ID to range
ecology, to restoration ecologyand several things in between.

He's done studies on fire andwhether or not smoke actually
aids in germination of prairiespecies and different species of
He's looked at ecology andrestoration and so many things
all over the country and he isjust such a good guy, just a
good guy and he's someone that Iam just so proud and excited to

have in the position that he'sin leading our academic programs
and helping oversee studentsand helping them deal with their
issues and get them newopportunities, and then, as a
faculty member, someone whohelps me put together my classes
and everything as well.
He's been a great resource and,like I said, a really good
friend and mentor over the years.
So I think you're really goingto enjoy this conversation with

Dr Cox.
He is kind and soft-spoken andbrilliant and I think that
you're really just going toenjoy the time that we get to
spend with him for the next oh,I don't know hour or so.
So grab yourself a nice bottleof liquid smoke flavoring and
maybe take a little for yourselfand put some on your seeds to
help them germinate and getyourself ready for episode 105

of the Plantthropology podcastNative plants, academic optimism
and liquid smoke with Dr RobertCox.
Well, rob, thanks so much forcoming in.

I appreciate your time.
I know how busy you are andit's fun to get to talk to you.

Speaker 2 (02:43):
It's nice to talk and nice to be here.
Instead of doing whatever else,I would be doing so in a
meeting or yeah, there's plentyplenty of those.

Speaker 1 (02:52):
Yeah, I you know, and it seems like I don't know if
it's just an academia thing, butit seems like there's always
another one and people reallylike their meetings.
I don't know what it is.

Speaker 2 (03:06):
People love meetings and they love to talk at the
I'm not a great meeting talker,but uh, you know, we, we do
what we have to, I guess, yeah.

Speaker 1 (03:11):
It's part of part of the gig, I guess.
Um so, again, thanks for comingin.
Um, I would just like to hearfrom you about your background
and uh.
Where'd you grow up?
What did you study?
How did you get to where youare today?

Speaker 2 (03:24):
Yeah, I think a lot of like a lot of people.
Probably it's a little bit mixof serendipity and maybe fate,
maybe sort of inspiration.
In Utah my father was aprofessor at BYU.

So we grew up south of SaltLake City, right there next to
BYU kind of, and he was aherpetologist oh cool.
So I have very early memoriesof accompanying him on his PhD
fieldwork and I don't know,maybe because of that, that

always seemed like a pretty coollife to me, you know, being in
the field doing awesome thingsand and of course he was um
studying herpetology and so wewere.
I would go with him and we'd becatching snakes and lizards and
looking at cool stuff, andplants weren't really on the
horizon, except that they werethere.

But in college I changed mymajor five times.
Oh, okay, which is prettynormal, for nowadays I may have
been ahead of my time a littlebit, but for undergraduate
students nowadays that's almostabout average.
So I started out as apre-veterinary, then switched to

pre-medical, then switched toconservation science, switched
to wildlife and then back toconservation with a wildlife
Wow, in the midst of that Itook a class called wildland
plant identification, which isthe same class that I teach now

here at Texas Tech.
I was going to BYU and almostevery university in Western
North America that has arangeland or wildlife program
has a very similar class inplant id and, and they cover
about the same plants, maybearound 200 different species of

plants, um, so I took that class, kind of got into it a little.
I mean, I didn't ace the class.
I always tell the students andwhen I teach now that I did not
ace the class I.
I did pretty well.
I got a B, maybe a B plus, andI felt happy with that grade
based on the rigor of the class.

And the professor that wasteaching that class then had a
summertime job available forundergraduate students to work
out in the Great Basin measuringplant communities and
documenting the different kindsof plant communities that were
there on an army base.
So he had a contract with thearmy as a civilian contractor to

measure and monitor the plantdiversity and so he was hiring
undergraduate students to dothat, and so I worked as part of
that crew for a year and thenhe had a master's degree
So I took the MCAT.
My scores were fine, but I waskind of more interested in the
plants at that point.

So I did the master's degree,thinking, oh, maybe medical
school is always a possibility,still I can do a master's degree
But after that then I realized Inow have that cool lifestyle
that my dad had and I was out inthe field doing cool field work

, which I do much less ofnowadays.
But and so then the choice waswhat do I do next?
Get an agency job working for astate or federal agency doing
basically botany, which wouldhave been great or maybe get a
PhD and look into teaching.
So I did a PhD in SouthernCalifornia my master's was in
botany and then PhD in SouthernCalifornia, also in botany my
master's was in botany, and thenPhD in Southern California,

also in botany.
Okay, and you know, then, aboutthe time the PhD was finished, I
got a job working for the USForest Service in Boise, idaho,

still doing cool lifestyle stuffthat I was in love with,
working as a research ecologiststudying wildfires in the Great
Basin and how to restore thosewildfire damages.
And about that time my sisterwas doing a master's degree in
soil science here at Texas Tech,and so she emailed me and said
hey, you know, there's a jobopening here in the college, in

the Fish and Wildlife Department, I think it was called then.
It sounds like you, so I readthe job advertisement and did it
It sounded like they read myresume and sent it back to me,
and so I applied and now I'vebeen here for almost 16 years.
Oh, wow, yeah.

Speaker 1 (08:27):
That's cool.

Speaker 2 (08:28):
It's been good.
I can't imagine a betterpathway.
Really, it seemed uncertain,especially in college.
You switch in my major so manytimes.
Sure, I have a brother who's 18months younger than me but
always knew he was going to bean engineer.
And so he's 18 months younger,but we graduated college at the
same time because he wentstraight through.

Speaker 1 (08:46):

Speaker 2 (08:47):
And I sort of wound my way around and found a
pathway that worked.

Speaker 1 (08:52):
Yeah, and I think that that's, I don't know.
It feels like that's morecommon than not.
These I changed twice.
I guess I started off inbiomedical engineering.
Oh yeah, I guess I wanted.
I also wanted to go to medschool.
My granddad was a doctor and umturns out like calculus and
blood were not like my things,so like.

So I did, you know, biomedicalscience, still thinking I would
go into the field somewhere.
And then general studies andthen finally ended up in
horticulture down at A&M,because I had a general studies
advisor give me really goodadvice of like, find something
you actually like, yeah, yeah.
And you know, because in mymind I was still like, oh, I can

do this, there's good money inthis and that's important, like
those things are not unimportant, yeah, yeah.
But he was like you know, a bigpart of like being happy is
like not hating getting up andgoing to work every day.

Speaker 2 (09:46):
Right, well, I mean that's so.

Speaker 1 (09:48):
I grew up gardening and that was definitely a big
switch in my life, but it was agood one, fantastic, yeah, and
so it's been good.

Speaker 2 (09:55):
You know I've enjoyed it, enjoyed my time here and
plan on that continuing.

Speaker 1 (10:01):

Speaker 2 (10:02):
Every role has been enjoyable so far.

Speaker 1 (10:04):
That's interesting.
You know, in your fieldspecifically, I mean you know
you studied botany but in thecontext it seems like of you
know, range management of wildland management.
Yeah, my wife was a wildlifeand fisheries major in college
but she stayed on the animalside and the herpetology would
have been right up her, you know, and she, when she was getting

out, kind of thought about whatto do and she ended up being a
museum educator for about 12years until just recently, and
so she, like she, loved that.

Speaker 2 (10:34):
Yeah, yeah, you know I think it goes back to what you
said your advice from youradvisors you find something you
love and you can.
There's lots of opportunities,almost no matter what you study.
Yeah, if you're studyingsomething you love, then you're
going to make yourselfopportunities that way.

Speaker 1 (10:54):
Yeah, yeah, you find ways to keep doing it.
I think so.
You said you've been here 16years.
What is your, I guess, careerhere at tech been like Cause it?
You know, it seems like you'vedone even several things in the
context of being here.

Speaker 2 (11:07):
Oh, yeah, texas tech has been an outstanding place
for me.
I feel very fortunate to havebeen here.
I never, you know, I wasfocused on the West, right?
I know in Texas sometimes wethink we're part of the West.
The rest of the West doesn'tthink so.
Oh yeah, right, but I probablynever would have thought, oh,

I'm going to Texas.
But now that I've been hereit's been a fantastic place for
Texas Tech has been great.
Started as assistant professorand then was promoted to
associate and then to professorand then, about that time as

well, was able to serve asassociate chair in the
department and then as interimassociate dean and now is just
as associate dean.
And and that gives us that kindof trajectory of career has has
really allowed me to look atcollege education, university

education from lots of angles.
Um, the administrative side is,uh, field work, less of the
nice lifestyle that thatoriginally drew me to the field,
but I still try and make timeto get out and look at plants
and and and keep a little bit ofthat going.
But it has also allowed me tosee almost like behind the

curtain of.
You know, as professor,assistant and associate
professor I was teaching andresearching and just really into
the teaching side of things andthe research side of things.
But, um, we can't do it withoutthe administrative side too,
it's sure, and and so it givesme a way to kind of see our

students and our faculty attheir best.
You sometimes see folks whenthey're having a difficult time
as well, and it gives you anopportunity to try and support
them through that and find findgood outcomes and solutions.
But really it's those successesthat that really are meaningful

, sure.

Speaker 1 (13:25):
Well, and so I think a lot of folks listening are
probably not.
You know, we do have a lot ofacademic people listening, and
so you know, when they hear youknow associate dean, it has like
it has a picture in their mind,but for so you're the associate
dean of academic and studentprograms.
Is that correct?
Yep, did I get that?

Speaker 2 (13:42):
Yep, that's right.
It's kind of a mouthful,especially when you tack on
Davis College of AgriculturalSciences and Natural Resources.
Yeah, I don't know how anythingfits on our business cards Like
It doesn't fit on like letters,when, when I make my signature
block on a letter, I have to bereally creative about how I
break all those things up.
It's weird.

Speaker 1 (14:00):
So in your current role.
What does that?
What does that entail?
How does that relate tothinking about academics and
student programs?
How do you work with studentsand how do you work with the
academic unit as a whole?

Speaker 2 (14:15):
Sure, there's several components to it.
There's a day-to-day managementcomponent and then there's a
long-term, maybe strategicthinking component for it.
The day-to-day managementcomponent is within the college.
We're responsible.
My team and I have a studentsuccess center that I work with.

I mean, they're the realprofessionals right, as an
administrator I'm sort ofmoonlighting, but they're the
real professionals.
And our college we have, I'mconvinced, the strongest, most
professional group of studentsuccess specialists across the
And so as a team we're taskedwith managing the academic

programs within the college.
So we track students as theyenter the university, as they
progress through their programs,and then we're in charge of
verifying that they meet therequirements for the degree and
then actually literally postingthe degree and giving them the
degree once they've met thoserequirements.

Okay, so that's kind of the dayto day management and that
includes providing resources forstudents who might be
struggling, ensuring that weretain the students, that we
recruit students, bothundergraduates and graduates,
and then, you know, helping themmove on through the programs to

get their degrees and thentheir diplomas on out the door,
the more strategic.
Well, that's the student sideof things, right.
Sure, we also try and work withfaculty in their teaching
programs and promoting andadvocating for excellent
As a college, davis College wehave always been among the top

rated teaching faculty acrossthe university.
We'd love for that to continue,you know.
And so supporting excellentteaching, supporting excellent
student experiences and makingsure that students have the
resources and the faculty andthe staff have the resources
that we all need to make auniversity, to make a college,

Well, that's the day-to-day part, and then the strategic part is
thinking about, you know, ourprograms as a whole, both how
they run and can we be moreefficient, but also you know
what kind of programs might beprogram in the 1980s and it was

phased out.
And you know maybe there'sdemand for a program like that
Or maybe there's NRM, theNatural Resources Management
Department has a major inconservation, law enforcement oh

So these are students who areinterested in mostly becoming
game wardens.
You know maybe there's demandfor that program to grow, oh
Or in plant and soil science,you know maybe there's going to
be more demand for plantbreeding and biotechnology.
And how do we ensure that TexasTech, and the Davis College

specifically, is well positionedto train students and build
that program and supply sort ofthat workforce demand?

Speaker 1 (18:01):
Yeah, Well, and that's and I think that's
important, because I think and Idon't know if it is inside the
industry, outside the industryor both but our whole sort of
green space, so to speak,agriculture, natural resources,
everything in between andoutside of that, I think
sometimes it feels like we getstuck in terms of like stuck in

time, and maybe that's not theright way to say it.
I know, on the outside, lookingin, it often feels that way,
Because I've had conversationswith people like, oh, y'all are
still, you know, doing X, Y andZ, Like no, yeah, we haven't
done that in 35 years.
You know, in terms ofirrigation, in terms of
management, a lot of things.
And part of that is, you know,and I think we have a great ag

comm department.
I think we have produced somereally great what's, what's the
They advocates right Peoplethat advocate for which is hard
for me to say agriculture.
But I think, as as a whole, likewe need to figure out how to
tell our story better as weinnovate.
I think that's a big part of ittoo.

Speaker 2 (19:04):
Yeah, and you know the college has really tried
hard to move those kinds ofdirections as well.
With the new dean we have DrCrable.
He's been here for just over ayear now and moved very quickly
to specifically shore up thatpart of sort of the college's

And so we have a new associatedean for outreach and engagement
, dr Eric Earlbeck.
We have a marketing andcommunications team now, where
before we had one.

Now we're building that out intoa team of several and we have a
new director for corporateengagement as well, to work with
companies and developingopportunities for students and
to understanding their sort ofdemands for workforce and for
And all those go right towardsthat storytelling where we need
to make sure that, amidst theteaching, amidst the research,

that we're also able to tell thestory of what we do and why we
do it, and what agriculture,what natural resources or
landscape design, what thosegive to the world.

Speaker 1 (20:23):
Well, and again, I think that is so important.
You know something I hear fromstudents which I didn't expect
to hear.
This right, it was not a story Iexpected to hear from students
but like, apparently at the highschool level, like they're not
hearing about any of the newstuff we do.
What they get told I think alot is that like I don't know
they hear that old story.

Or you know they hear, oh,horticulture, there's nothing to
do in horticulture, right, Goafter a tech field or go after
And then I think I so I teachyou know, for those those out
there listening that haven'theard this before like I teach
intro horticulture.
So I get non-majors across theuniversity and they're always
just shocked when they hear howmany different facets of our

society we touch, even just inhorticulture.
And so I think that the missionof telling that story, both to
our kids at high schoolers,people who are trying to figure
out what to do with their lives,but just society in general, I
think it's just going to getmore and more important,
especially with all themisinformation and
disinformation about agricultureand our space out there.

Speaker 2 (21:27):
Yeah, that's true.
You know we often talk about.
The great thing for colleges ofagriculture like the Davis
College is that literallyeverybody in the world
participates in agriculturesomehow whether that's by
producing, by wearing or byeating, every single one of us

is participating in agricultureand we just need to make sure
that we know that and thatpeople understand the importance
of agriculture, of naturalresources and a landscape in
their lives.
And in some ways, that is aneasy case to make once you, once
you get into it like that.

Speaker 1 (22:09):
So just changing gears, just a little bit to talk
, maybe at a higher level or adifferent level, about just
students today, the academicexperience today, cause you know
, I'm already at the place in mylife, like I'm in my mid-30s
and I realized that, like Igraduated from college 15 years
ago and I don't know how thathappened, like that was a little

upsetting my college freshman Irealized recently that my
college freshmen were born theyear I graduated high school and
I didn't enjoy realizing thatvery much.
That was upsetting.
But like the whole landscapehas changed, right, I think,
especially over the past threeor four years, but like just
even over the past decade or two, the whole academic landscape

has changed in my opinion.
Yeah, and you know you talkedabout how we look for the
success stories and we celebratethose and all that.
But like you, unfortunatelyfortunately, or unfortunately I
think it's good that they havesomeone like you to go to.
But you know we have studentsthat struggle with everything,
like what kinds of things do wedo as a college?

What kinds of things maybe at alarger level, could the
academics who are listening, theteachers, the people out here
listening, what kinds of thingscan we be doing for our students
to like, make them moresuccessful to handle some of
those new stressors?

Speaker 2 (23:31):
Yeah, I think that's a good question and I don't
think it's one that anybodyactually understands very well
right now.
I feel like once I understandthat, maybe I'll be on the fast
track to something big, butmaybe it's kind of the journey

of trying to understand that.
I think students today areremarkable.
They have lived through somereally incredible periods of
world history, really incredibleperiods of world history, you
I mean I think about me growingup.
There was nothing like that.
You know, I went to school, Icame home, you know, and so

students today are remarkable.
They've had remarkableexperiences, they have an
unbelievable ability to adapt,and so I think that there's a
quote I heard once that I thinkabout quite a bit, that
basically it said babies haven'tchanged, and so if young adults

are different now than theyused to be, that's because of us
, and that could be good or bad.
If they're different, ifthey're better now than they
used to be, well, great, goodfor us right Maybe good for us.

If we have concerns with the wayyoung adults are right now,
then it is something we did,because babies aren't different
now than they were a thousandyears ago.
Yeah, um, I think, with allthat remarkableness that that
that I see in students, you know, understandably they're facing
some challenges, um, but alsosome opportunities, and I think
in almost every case, what maybe perceived as challenges are
probably best seen asopportunities.
If you look at differences ingenerations, you'll hear people

do studies and say oh, today'sgenerations whether that's
digital natives or Gen Next orGen Alpha or whatever you want
to call them they're used toinformation.
They don't necessarily needinformation delivery in
What they need are experiencesand mentoring out of classrooms

and in a lot of ways, that'sprobably about right, I mean you
know I can look up how toidentify a plant now.
I don't need a professor to tellme that, especially if all
they're doing is telling meright.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Or there's an app called Seekor Picture this or several
others PlantSnap that you cantake a picture of a plant and
for many plants it's prettyaccurate.
It'll tell you what it is Right, yeah, so what's needed is the
ability to interpret thatinformation and apply it in

real-world situations.
And you know, I took plant IDand we memorized plants and that
was it.
The challenge for us inclassrooms today is it's not
just information delivery, and Ithink you know we've all had
those classes where it's theprofessor up on the stage and

they're talking for an hour andthen you go home and maybe
you've written one page of notes, or maybe 25 pages of notes,
depends on the topic and onyourself and then the test comes
along and you regurgitate thenotes and great you, you got the
And so the challenge today isan information delivery.
It's all there yeah in theethernet, you knownet, it's on

the Internet, Just look it up.
The challenge today is to helpstudents and frankly we're
learning this too as instructorsto process information and
apply it.
Yeah, which is a great place tobe.
This is exciting engaging,which is a great place to be.

This is exciting engaging.
When done right, that kind ofclass is way more engaging than
just lecture informationdelivery.

Speaker 1 (28:05):
So I think that's our challenge today in terms of
education is making classes thathelp students learn to process
and apply information, not justregurgitate it.
Yeah, no, and that's I'm stillthinking through all of it,
cause that's that's really agood point.
I love that quote, though, thatbabies haven't changed and and
it's easy to, I guess, and youknow we hear this, we hear it
from our colleagues, we hear itacross.
You know, we go to meetings andwe hear this, we go to
conferences and we hear this,and like we go to meetings and
we hear this, we go toconferences and we hear this,

and like all the kids these days, blah, blah, blah, and you know
, but I really like the factthat we need to, I like the
thought process that we need totake some responsibility in that
of like this is the world we'vebuilt.

Speaker 2 (28:37):
Yeah, Like it's.
You know they're still kids andI know that they're adults.

Speaker 1 (28:42):
But you know, again, I'm thinking through, like every
they get younger.
It feels like they get youngerevery year Like does your mom
know you're here Like the firstday of class?
But no, that's reallyinteresting.
And teaching freshmen, Idefinitely get that.
Oh, I'm sure.
Like I teach, I tell them a lotLike look, you can pull out
your phone and look up anythingI'm going to tell you in this

class, like it is, you have theentirety of human knowledge in
your pocket.
Yeah, but it's the criticalthinking.

Speaker 2 (29:09):
It's the critical thinking and, you know, if you
look, I'm pretty optimistic, Ithink, about students and about
their future.
The world's in great hands.
Yeah, I agree.
Yeah, I agree.
If some of us older folks, oncewe get out of the way, these
students are remarkable.
They're bright, they'reambitious, they're kind.

Yeah, they want to do what'sright, not only for themselves
but for people around them, andthere's lots of reasons to be
optimistic about what's coming.

Speaker 1 (29:43):
Yeah, I like that a lot.
It was a good point, I think,to take a quick break so I can
slide into mid-roll and thankthe department of college for
letting me do this, and thenwe'll come back and I'd like to
talk about ecology on the backend and talk about plants a
little bit more.
Oh, yeah, you bet.
Well, hey, there youcomplicated houseplants.
Welcome to the mid-roll.
I hope you've been enjoyingthis episode so far.

I know I loved having thisconversation with Robert and
getting to talk about all of thestuff that goes into what we do
as academics and our hope forthe future in students, and I
can't wait for you to hear theconversation we have about
ecology coming up soon.
But first I'd like to thank you, the listener, my friend, for
being a part of Planthropology.
We could not do this withoutyou and I am glad you are here.
Thanks also to the Texas TechDepartment of Plant and Soil
Science and the Davis College ofAgriculture and Natural

Resources for letting me do thispodcast.
Thanks to the PodFix Networkfor letting me be a part of it.
If you want to connect withPlantthropology, you can find me
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upcoming guests or anything else, I would love to hear from you.
Also, if you could leave me arating and review on Apple
Podcasts or Podchaser or Spotifyor anywhere else you can, that

really means a lot to me.
It helps me know that I'm doingthe things that you like to
hear, but it also just gives methe warm fuzzies.
And if you're looking to get mea gift, my birthday is in.
Well, don't worry about when itis, it's soonish, maybe I wear
a size five star review.
It fits just right.
I've lost a couple of pounds.
It's great.
Thanks again for being a partof this and what else Is there?

Are there other things?
There are probably other thingsthat I can't remember right now
, and that there are probablyother things that I can't
remember right now, and that'stotally fine.
What you get, my friends, is myjumbled brain coming at you
through your headphones or carspeakers, and you're welcome.
All right, let's do it.
Wait, wait, wait, wait.
No, hang on, Wait.
I thought of the other thing.
There's another thing.

I wrote a book.
If you would like to read mybook, go check out your local
library and ask them for Plantsto the Rescue.
It's a great kids book.
If your kids are into plants orif you would like your kids to
be in the plants, you can alsoorder it anywhere that books
live, and that would mean a lotto me.
Okay, now let's really do itAll right.
Well, we are back.
I wanted to dive a little bitinto some of the subject matter

you work in and I think thatsomething you said before the
break about how students are notjust interested in, like how to
do the right thing forthemselves, but for society, for
the world in general, for theenvironment, everything else.
I think that fits in so wellwith a lot of what you teach and
a lot of what you do inprairies and grasslands.

And so can you give us and Iknow this is hard to do, but can
you give us sort of theelevator pitch of, like what you
teach and your basic likesubject matter.

Speaker 2 (33:14):
You bet I'm a plant ecologist so I study wild plants
in their wild habitats.
Not all of them are native,right, we have lots of invasive
species too but I study wildplants in their wild habitats
and I'm especially interested inecological restoration.
So taking damage, a damagedecosystem and trying to rebuild

it to trying to restore it backto some semblance of what it was
before and those listening ifthey know anything about
ecological restoration might becringing because there's all
kinds of issues tied up intrying to understand what it was

before and where you draw thoselines and how you determine to
what you're restoring.
But still, in a very general,basic sense, interested in
repairing damaged ecosystems andrestoring them to something
that's more natural.

Speaker 1 (34:13):
That's really interesting and again, I think
that's such a good point, Likewhat was it before I asked the
So when I have the conversationabout, say, native plants, I
think in some cases that can bea little loaded in terms of as a
term Yep, Okay, how far are wegoing back?
What does that mean?

Speaker 2 (34:32):
Exactly, and where do we draw the?
And it's not only.
It has both a temporalcomponent and a spatial
component, because it's nativeto where and native to when.
And what do we mean by nativeanyway?
Does it have to have evolved inthis location?
Can it have migrated on its own?

Most folks feel pretty certainif humans brought it?
It's probably not native.
But what if humans brought it10,000 years ago, right?
Probably not native, but whatif humans brought it 10,000
years ago Right Versus what ifit was?
brought you know, in thecolonial era those are all sort

of gray areas.
Which is funny, because whenyou say I'm interested in
restoring native species,everybody thinks they understand
what that means yeah, but onceyou try and actually define what
native means and define whatrestore means, then you start
getting into all these sort ofweird definitions.

Speaker 1 (35:38):
Yeah, and again, that's a big conversation too.
Again, and that's a bigconversation too.
But I think it's important thatpeople hear that too, because
you get on social media and youhave people that are very much
into quote, unquote nativeplants.
We're native plant people.
If it's not this, burn it down,Start over, okay, but like our
climate has changed, ourecosystems have fundamentally

changed because of us, becauseof other things, right, and so
it's okay.
Where are we going back to?
I'm of the opinion, and pleasecorrect me if I'm like misguided
on this, because this issomething that I keep in my head
Like you know, I come at itfrom the landscape side, the
urban landscape side.
That's where a lot of mybackground is in that, not just
native, but native and welladapted.
Are those things we're lookingat in like ecological

restoration too, like what couldwe bring in that fits here?
Or is it just you know?
I don't know.

Speaker 2 (36:33):
I don't know where that line lives.
Yeah, I mean, that's a reallytopic of current discussion
within ecology, withinrestoration, ecological
I think you'll find in thefield of ecological restorations
, most folks are pretty set onnative species.
You'll find a strong contingentof folks who you say, look, if

it's native and well adapted andbehaves kind of native, sure
you know, we may be betterconsider it because it's not
like sometimes we have all thatmany uh, native species,
especially through climatechange, that might be well
adapted to that spot now, um,but by and large, most folks in

ecological restoration going tofeel like we want to focus on
native species.
Okay, um, and, and you know, wedo have lots of good native
species we just don't have lotsof access to good you know
native species.
Say, if you wanted to reseed a10 000 or 1 million acre fire,

where are you going to get thoseseeds from?
And and you know, going back tothe, how native is native um,
are you going to insist on thespecies being native or you can
assist on a native genotype ornative source for the seeds so
you could seed, um, let's say, alittle blue stem which would be

ecologically adapted to some ofthose areas that have burned
here in Texas recently.
But maybe you get the seed fromSouth Texas, so it's the same
But is that South Texasgenotype really native to the
And does that even matter?
And these are things thatcurrent topics of research and

discussion how native native hasto be.

Speaker 1 (38:30):
Yeah, it's really fascinating.
So if you're listening as werecord this, it is early March
in 2024.
And currently there are in thepanhandle of Texas, large fires
Last I saw was like 1.2, 1.3million acres of burn,
unbelievable In just days.
In what?
Five days maybe?
And aside from the loss of life, loss of industry, loss of

livestock and buildings,everything else that goes with
that, like yeah, there's allthese and buildings, everything
else that goes with that, likeyeah, there's all these keystone
species, these native speciesout there.
You know, this is what short tomedium grass prairie, yep, kind
of as far north as you want togo.

Speaker 2 (39:13):
Yeah, and typically we'd say prairies are well
adapted to fire.
Yeah, so you know, under normalcircumstances, we expect
prairie to recover well andprobably quickly from fire.
We have the added stressor ofperiodic droughts through the

This is a really drought-proneregion to begin with.
You know, think about the DustBowl.
This is a Dust Bowl area aswell, and so add those periodic
droughts coupled with climatechange, coupled with changes in
grazing pressure, went from anunfenced migratory bison grazing

system to fenced non-migratorylivestock, and so, even though
it's very similar in manyrespects ungulates grazing the
impacts aren't always similarbecause of the non-migratory and
all of that.

So you know, under normalcircumstances, expect prairies
to recover well from fire.
Under these circumstances,where we have such large areas
burning all at once, we'll see,yeah.

Speaker 1 (40:41):
And it's fascinating and just to dive into a little
bit of specifics here, justbecause I think it's interesting
, so I think maybe someone elsewill out there.
I saw a video not too long agoon Instagram or somewhere I
don't remember where it was andit was this guy talking about
he's in California restoring asort of riparian species of I

don't know if it was a grasssort of riparian species of I
don't know if it was a grass hewas talking about like invasive
pampas grass that's taking overa lot of riparian areas or river
areas, and he had a bottle ofseeds and he said you know, I've
These are species thatgerminate after fires and I've
treated it with liquid smoke andput it out.
And the comments we're so likepeople were like you can't put

liquid smoke in blah, blah, blah, blah, it needs the fire.
But I was reading one of yourpapers from a few years ago
about essentially that what itrolled is like smoke and then
smoke dissolved in water andwhatever play in seed
germination in some of thesespecies Could you talk about
that a little bit, because Ithink it's fascinating, it's a
great topic there's for almost30 years now.

Speaker 2 (41:45):
Um, there's been an like this increasing body of
research that shows that thereare chemicals within smoke that
can, uh, alter the germinationcharacteristics for for some
species, and this is usuallyespecially occurs in certain
kinds of fire, adaptedecosystems or ecosystems that

have certain intervals of fire.
So places like in Californiawhere there's the California
chaparral, where that chaparralis a shrubby ecosystem and then
it experiences fires on sort ofmedium term intervals, maybe
anywhere from 15 to 30 years,and you expect that chaparral to

burn again.
It occurs in similar kinds ofshrubby ecosystems in South
Africa as well as in Europe,shrubby ecosystems in South
Africa as well as in Europe,areas that often have a
Mediterranean-type climate withhot summers and mild, cool

winters with precipitation.
So there's been this growingbody of evidence that some seeds
, some species are adapted tothose chemicals within smoke and
it's not the heat of the fire,it's chemicals within the smoke
itself and those chemicals arewater soluble.
So you know, you could go tothe grocery store in the spice

aisle and buy literally barbecuesmoke flavoring.
It doesn't matter if it'smesquite flavor or hickory
flavor, it's mostly the sameanyway, but you can buy that
bottle of liquid smoke flavoringand then you can dilute it some
and soak seeds in it, and someseeds will germinate faster than

when they've been exposed tosmoke, than when they've not.
Without a fire on a landscape,there's going to be the
chemicals in the smoke, or thecharred plant material is going
to dissolve into whatevermoisture there might be in the
soil or if it rains, and thenthose seeds be exposed to that,

and now the seeds that areadapted to do so basically can
say oh, there's been a fire,now's a great time to germinate,
there's space available,there's nutrients available,
let's germinate now.
And so this is great adaptationfor some plants.

There's also some evidence thatfor some plants, that delays
their germination.
That has less clear reasons forthat.
Why would you not want togerminate when there's light and
nutrients, soil nutrients andspace available to germinate
But prairies are also afire-prone ecosystem, but with

generally much shorter intervalSomewhere, you know, maybe every
3 to 10 years rather than every15 to 30 years and so there's
been much less evidence of thatkind of smoke-stimulated
germination in prairieecosystems.
It's certainly possible, though, that there are species that

that could do that, and we foundsome hints.
You know that there are somespecies that might be inhibited
by by, uh, smoke and maybe someothers that might be promoted by
smoke, but this jury's stillout.

Speaker 1 (45:19):
Really for prairies, yeah that's so fascinating and
knowing that, like looking backon it, that feels like one of
those things that we'll lookback on and be like, well, of
course, of course, right, ofcourse it's that way because you
know there are all thesecomponents in smoke and then it
rains and it gets mixed in andwe think about, you know, the

long evolution of plants in anative ecosystem and I don't
It's just a fascinating thought, but it's, it's also a good.
I think it kind of goes back towhat we were talking about
earlier a little bit, that inpeople's minds, like agriculture
, plant science is the same asit was a thousand years, you
know, a hundred years ago, whenwe were studying, but we found

all this new cool stuff.
Like you can go buy grocerystore liquid smoke and germinate
some plants better.

Speaker 2 (46:08):
I was visiting with a colleague in last week I was in
Washington DC attending somemeetings and they made the
comment which I 100% agree with.
They said agriculture is hightech and in fact, if you look
across high tech type careers,there are more high tech jobs in

agriculture right now thanprobably any other like sector,
and that runs the range fromliterally robotics, robotic
design, to chemistry andgenetics and nanotechnology.
Agriculture right now isprobably, I feel like, at a

crossroads of technologydevelopment, where it's we're in
for some amazing things rightnow and agriculture is leading
the way in a lot of ways, and weneed to.

Speaker 1 (47:08):
I think, in a lot of ways, like we have, I think a
lot of responsibility is as anindustry, as a sector, uh, to
keep feeding people, you know,keep making things better, but
also protect the environment andthe process and all that, and I
think all these innovations areso cool in that aspect for sure
Yeah, yeah, absolutely Just so,just, I don't want to keep you

too much longer.
Just a couple of quickquestions that I was.
So again we were talking aboutprairies and I want to go back
to that for just a secondbecause I think, like I grew up
here, out here on the prairieright, Like yeah, it's
agricultural land, but like Ilove driving outside of town and
just seeing, like you know, twofoot tall grass as far as you
can see.
I bet this was an intimidatinglandscape at one point, when you
know, oh, it must have been.

Speaker 2 (47:52):
I mean, the Lubbock area was really, I think,
considered unsettled, unlivableby Americans, europeans.
You know it was intimidating.
There was no water, there's no,really no surface water
available, and they just prettyknow it was intimidating.
There was no water, there'sreally no surface water
available, and they just prettymuch thought it was a desert.
People you know here I grew upin Utah and did PhD in Southern

California and lived in Boise,idaho, and a lot of times the
first thing they'll say is, oh,you must miss the mountains so
I do love the mountains and Ispent a lot of time in the
deserts out there as well, butyou know, those deserts, those
mountains, they've got reallynothing over the prairies.
When you're out on the prairie,no matter what time of day it

is, in the evening, watching thesun come up or go down, even at
midday, in the evening,watching the sun come up or go
down, even at midday, you'rereally you're there in one of
the most unique, beautifulecosystems on earth.

Speaker 1 (48:52):

Speaker 2 (48:52):
And it's amazing, amazing, amazing place to be.

Speaker 1 (48:57):
It is and they're so.
These are such complexecosystems too the number of the
amount of species, diversityit's really easy to stand and
just look at this grass, yeah,but from animals to plants, you
know, and we think about interms of carbon sequestration
and nutrient exchange andcycling, like prairies do so

much for our planet and peopleare just like that's grass.

Speaker 2 (49:21):
You know, I don't know.
Yeah, yeah, and and you know,not only all of that on the
native side, but they supportessentially all of the
agriculture on earth.
Yeah, I mean, of course there'sagriculture elsewhere.
But if you look at whereagriculture is, it's in prairies
, it's in grasslands around theworld, and you know it's amazing

that our North Americanprairies can do all of that
It's amazing there's anyprairies left?
Yeah, and there are.
And little by little there'smore and more.
As agriculture advances andconsolidates, you know, farms

get bigger and bigger, which maybe cause for concern for some
reasons, but that also meansthat lots of less productive
areas get returned to grassland,to prairie, and you know
there's some reason to beoptimistic about that as well.

Speaker 1 (50:22):
Yeah, I think that's cool and in terms, of you know,
ecological restoration, that'salways good to see.

Speaker 2 (50:27):
I would tell my students it's a career with 100%
job security.
There will always.
Always be a need for people whocan understand damaged
ecosystems and work to improvethem.
Yeah, for sure.

Speaker 1 (50:44):
Well, rob, I appreciate your time.
The last question I want toleave you with and I ask all my
guests this if you had one pieceof advice, one thing, and it
can be about anything that you'dlike to leave our listeners
with, what would that be?
Easy questions right.

Speaker 2 (51:00):
Honestly, the very first thingthat comes into my mind is to
just take the next step, and Ithink that that works for
academic questions, that worksfor ecological questions, that
works for difficult lifequestions as well.

Speaker 1 (51:19):

Speaker 2 (51:20):
Just take the next step.
You don't have to do it all atonce.
You probably can't do it all atonce, but you know, if it's a
damaged ecosystem, what's thenext thing that you can do to
improve it, Take that step.
If it's your academic program,what's the next thing that you
need to do, whether it's thenext test to study for the next

class to take?
Whatever that next step is,just do it.
If it's some difficult issue inyour personal life, just take
the next step.
You don't have to do it all atonce.

Speaker 1 (51:50):
I think it's really good advice and it makes big
problems into small problems.
In some cases you just take abite out of it.

Speaker 2 (51:58):
Take a bite out of it , and then, after that, do the
next one, and then do the nextone, and you'll be amazed at
what you can do.

Speaker 1 (52:06):
Yeah, that's awesome.
I think that's a great in allof those kind of realms of life.
I think that's really goodadvice.
So if people have questionsabout you know, coming to Texas
Tech or ecology or whatever else, where can they find you?
What's the best way to get intouch?
Right, they can email me.

Speaker 2 (52:26):
It's robertcox at ttuedu.
You can look up on the DavisCollege of Agricultural Sciences
and Natural Resources webpageand search for my name and it'll
be there.
If you do a Google search,actually I don't know I should
see what number of search levelI am.
That's always scary Googlingyourself, yeah yeah, I haven't
done that, but you know probablyfor sure if you do TTU Robert

Cox yeah probably theresomewhere.
I assume I'm going to be therein one of the one of the links.
I don't think so but, butemail's great and always, always
love to hear from folks andtalk about ecology or or the
Davis College or restoration,awesome.

Speaker 1 (53:10):
Well, thanks so much for your time.
I really enjoyed that.
It's fascinating.
I'd love to have you back on atsome point to deep dive some of
the ecology stuff a little bitmore.

Speaker 2 (53:19):
Yeah, anytime.

Speaker 1 (53:20):
I appreciate it Super Y'all.
I would also like to encourageyou to keep putting one foot in
front of the other, just takingthe next step, and I know some
days that's hard and I know forme some days it's really, really
But, robert's right, it is thenext little thing we can do and
then our big problems becomeslightly smaller problems and I

think that is just such greatadvice.
Thanks so much, robertbert, foryour wisdom and your insight
and just everything else.
It was a lot of fun getting totalk to you and I hope you had a
good time as well.
Thanks again to you, thelistener, for being a part of
plant anthropology.
You know I do this for you andit means the world to me that
you enjoy it.
Thanks again to the texas techdepartment of plant and soil
science and the davis collegefor your support of the show.

Thanks to the PodFix Networkand thanks also to the
award-winning, fantasticcomposer, nick Scout, for the
song If you Want to Love Me,babe, which is the new theme
music for Planthropology, and Ihope you enjoy that as well as
much as I do.
Y'all know I love you.
Keep being kind to one anotherand if you have not, to this day
Been kind to one another.

Give that a shot.
It's a good way to be.
Keep being really cool.
Plant people and I will talk toyou real soon.
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