GeoInspirations: Peggy McKillip - Changing the World One Tree at a Time

December 12, 2018
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Peggy McKillip, accessions horticulturist and GIS coordinator for the Baker Arboretum in Bowling Green, Ky.

When I met with researchers and instructors at Western Kentucky University, one of the highlights was to visit the Baker Arboretum. Once there, geography professor Dr. Kevin Cary introduced me to Peggy McKillip; I was immediately impressed by her extensive background in many areas of science, the ways she makes the arboretum available to students for their own research, how she cares for the land there, and how she uses GIS for the day-to-day operation and also for the long-range planning of the arboretum. Therefore, it is my pleasure to bring Peggy to the readers of Directions Magazine.

I asked Peggy to first describe what she does and how she came to be at the arboretum. “My position is accessions horticulturist and GIS coordinator for the Baker Arboretum. The Baker Arboretum is an adjunct facility of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. One of the basic requirements for botanical gardens and arboreta is having complete records of plant accessions on the property. The accessions include plants that are native to the site, purchased and propagated. The Access database of the plant records track the life of the plants, including the plant taxonomy, characteristics and requirements. I maintain both the plant database and the GIS that is joined to it.

“We are using GIS to map the arboretum, and also to analyze the environment and plants. The arboretum has 115 acres and functions as a living laboratory for WKU students. There are many student research projects that occur here, not only in horticulture but also geography and biology. The arboretum GIS is increasingly being utilized to assist the students for their research. The staff uses the analysis for understanding the conditions and how to work with the environment to grow an ever-increasing palate of plants. In addition, I work with WKU GIS interns, assigning them projects that range from collecting features, updating the geodatabase, to analysis,” she explained.

“I grew up in Athens, Ga. and attended the University of Georgia, majoring in horticulture. After graduating from UGA, I followed a typical horticultural profession path. I went from working at Stone Mountain Park outside of Atlanta, to high-end estate landscape maintenance in Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, and back in Atlanta. High-end landscape work includes maintenance, but also many projects that involve working with landscape architects or in-house design. The clients ranged from estates to penthouse gardens. Having used maps and architectural plans played a part into my eventual transition into GIS.

“All along, I was a member or a volunteer at whichever local botanic garden was nearby. When my husband was transferred to Vero Beach, Fla., I was hired by McKee Botanical Garden. McKee Botanical Garden was a former tourist destination, with a historic design by the Olmsted firm in the 1930’s. The community saved the property from development and restored the property as a botanical garden. While there, the restoration had started and as horticulturist, I worked with the landscape architect, horticulture director, construction team and the volunteers to implement the plans. In addition, I worked on accessioning of the new botanical garden.

“Upon moving to Bowling Green, Ky., I was hired by the Baker Arboretum as the accessioner. At the Baker Arboretum, I was assigned to investigate and develop GIS. I created a team with WKU to implement GIS. I travelled to the Dawes Arboretum just outside Columbus, Ohio, to learn about their GIS. The WKU geology department readily helped start our GIS program, initially with Dr. Katie Algeo, then later with Kevin Cary, M.Sc., GISP. My first intern did the initial feature collecting. As an arboretum, our focus is on the woody plants - trees, shrubs and plants that have a woody internal structure. My first GIS intern and I learned together how to create the GIS, through setup to data collection, and finally the integration of GIS with the existing Access database,” Peggy concluded.

Next, I asked Peggy to name the most important thing that convinced her to enter these fields. She replied, “My mother’s family had farms in South Georgia, and I’ve grown plants since I was a child. When I was an undergrad at UGA, I took a horticulture class for fun. My professor pulled me to the side one day and told me that I was doing better than some of the “hort” majors. Her comments and advice helped steer me into horticulture. When the first GIS intern started at the arboretum, I didn’t know anything about how the ArcGIS program worked, and I made many mistakes trying to maintain it. But I was fascinated with it and made some simple maps. After two more interns, I approached Kevin Cary about taking courses to earn the WKU GIS certificate. The courses were challenging but energizing. Learning alongside of the younger students was invigorating. The students in my classes were so smart, and we had a good camaraderie working together on the projects, studying and figuring out GIS,” she explained.

“Throughout my career, I have taken advantage of professional meetings, seminars, short-courses, online courses and any opportunity available. These ranged from landscape design courses to the GIS meetings that are available nearby. I am somewhat of a bulldog about learning how to do whatever challenge is before me and will seek out ways to figure out what is needed, whether through research, asking an expert or taking a class.” (Dear reader, I love Peggy’s “bulldog” term—what are you a bulldog about?)

What person, class, or topic most inspired Peggy during her career? “During my career, I’ve worked with a number of people that have had a major influence on me. From working with the greatest generation, WWII vets, who had a very pragmatic view of life, to self-taught professionals that see things from a different point of view from formal learning. While living in Denver, I was fortunate to work with Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator at the Denver Botanic Gardens. His interest in plants, people and knowledge in general is contagious. He managed his staff and volunteers by encouraging them to use their strengths and supporting them throughout. He has since then become internationally renowned, and travels the world exploring plants,” Peggy said.

“In GIS, all of the instructors were very knowledgeable, and worked with me as an older student, and mostly self-taught on the computer, since there were gaps in my knowledge that the younger students had learned. Kevin Cary has impressed me all along, first with his professional relationship with his students. While he has high standards, he is available to advise and steer the students through projects and career opportunities. His classes require the students to show their skill level and to work cooperatively on real-life projects, the same as their work will require. My interns think highly of him and were willing to go above and beyond in their internships. In addition, he is pragmatic and has a good sense of humor – two traits that help our professional interaction.”

What project or initiative is Peggy the proudest of being a part? “I am happy about the information resource that I have created at the Baker Arboretum. Initially, the Access database was very rudimentary. The WKU Informational Technology Department tutored me on how to overhaul the database, streamline it and create analyses. A big leap was getting the collaboration of the WKU GIS department to start the GIS program. Starting off with our first intern, David Evans, currently the GIS coordinator for the City of Bardstown, Ky. Working with him sparked my interest in GIS. Another step was to get funding for the interns — plus, just the fun of working with the interns as we move forward. Each one has been a joint effort to learn new skills together, through trials and tribulations, but also with laughs and exploration,” she answered. (Dear reader, consider pursuing a career where you can also experience laughs and exploration! I love Peggy’s description.)

 “Merging the GIS with the database and making a functional resource has been very satisfying. We are just starting to analyze the data. A couple of the current projects are about the effect of the Emerald Ash Borer on our Ash trees and the understory plants, and the role of pH in the soil analysis versus the pH needs of the plants. The high pH is causing deficiencies in the plants that prefer acidic soil. The amount of knowledge needed in the plant world is vast - there are so many interactions that need to be understood. Using GIS to analyze and visualize the interactions is helping to demonstrate the real-life results.

“I am also proud that over the course of my career, I have been instrumental in getting tens of thousands of trees planted,” Peggy concluded. (Dear reader, don’t miss this! Planting tens of thousands of trees is an amazing accomplishment!)

What does Peggy think is the most important thing on which we, the geography/field/ STEM/education/science/geospatial community, need to work? “I have two concerns about educational and science community needs: One is the unfamiliarity to nature in general, and the other is the geo-literacy of the general population,” she said.

“Botanical gardens, arboreta, National Parks and other outdoor public spaces staff persons have noticed that many people, children in particular, are not knowledgeable or comfortable with nature. They have little interaction in their lives with the outdoors and haven’t been able to embrace nature. This shows up, for example, with the fear of such harmless creatures as butterflies, and roly polies or pill bugs. This disconnect with nature just widens the knowledge gap that people have a major effect on nature and they aren’t aware of it. There are many ongoing projects to facilitate a natural experience, but parents, in particular, need to allow themselves and their children to be outside and just explore.” (Dear reader, for an eye-opening book about this topic, read Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods.”)

“I encounter the lack of geo-literacy frequently, from people not knowing that generally the temperature gets warmer as you get closer to the equator, to not understanding topography in relation to handicap access needs. The geospatial community is in a unique position to help the geo-literacy of the general population. Maps of all subjects can help catch the interest of people lacking geographic skills. By making maps fun and dynamic, engaging, even controversial, we can help lower the gap.”

What is Peggy’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “Keep learning, stay curious and keep questioning. There are many ways to overcome obstacles, so always have a plan B. Having an education just starts you in your field. Look for learning opportunities. There is a huge sea change occurring in professions now, so keeping up with learning is crucial. Take advantage of the knowledge of everyone around you. Those people around you, from levels below you to the top, can help tremendously. Don’t discount people - everyone has talent and knows something you don’t.”

Some of Ms McKillip’s favorite quotes are:

“There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.”  — Aldo Leopold from Meine, C. and Berry, W. (1988), Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” — Aldo Leopold from Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac.

"[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..." — President Barack Obama, from The White House Office of the Press Secretary (2015) Remarks by the President at White House Science Fair.

To learn more:

Read the presentation given by Peggy and Dr. Stone to the American Society of Horticultural Science, in “A 20-Year Survey of Conifer Survival at the Baker Arboretum, Bowling Green, Kentucky.”

See Peggy’s map of a section of the arboretum grounds.

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 See the poster by Kate Love and Martin Stone that demonstrates, using the arboretum data, a method to determine which understory plants will be directly impacted by the probable loss of the ash trees to the Emerald Ash borer.

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