Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New neighbors on the western plains

A relatively new neighbor will be stalking around the Hardin-Simmons University campus over in Abilene. His name is Rick Hammer, and his passion--after his wife and son, of course--is the blooming plants of the Rolling Plains.

I haven't actually met Rick, yet, face to face. He dropped into my email box the other day just to say "Howdy" and to mention that he had stumbled across this blog. Kind words notwithstanding, I just had a hunch Rick is the kind of guy you fall in like with at first sight. Of course, it helped that he didn't ask for anything...not right off, anyway.

One cannot be too careful, however, in this funky cyber age, so naturally I ran him through Google. Thanks to Google, virtually anyone can get the bonifides on darn near anyone else. I learned Rick--or, should I say, Dr. Rick-- just recently completed a PhD in botany at Texas A&M with a primary interest in systematics, population genetics, and informatics.

Yeah, I know. I was scratching my head over that informatics thing, too. Digging a bit deeper, I found this on Wikipedia:

Bioinformatics is the application of information technology to the field of molecular biology. Bioinformatics entails the creation and advancement of databases, algorithms, computational and statistical techniques, and theory to solve formal and practical problems arising from the management and analysis of biological data. Common activities in Bioinformatics include mapping and analyzing DNA and protein sequences, aligning different DNA and protein sequences to compare them and creating and viewing 3-D models of protein structures.

Rick's undergrad work at A&M was in forest science, then he got lured away into computers and information technology with Lockheed Martin Aerospace and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in Fort Worth. But his love for natural history in general and botany in particular brought him back to A&M to work on his doctorate.

"I tell everyone I am now retired as I begin a career in teaching and fun research into the flora of the Abilene area," Rick told me in an email interview. "I am 49 and went back to school to finish a PhD I had started in the 1990s. My wife and I moved from Ft. Worth to College Station in 2001. Guess I took my time in finishing my school work as we have a 4 year-old son--family is important!

"At Hardin-Simmons I plan to do research on the floristics of the Rolling Plains and other areas adjacent to Abilene. They've never really had a botanist out there since the 1970s, so there is much plant collecting work to be done. That's really my passion--not so much the technical lab work. I consider myself a naturalist first then a professional botanist. A big interest is in biodiversity--both documenting and conserving it. I may be doing some rare plant surveys in the Abilene area for TPWD (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) and possibly also a
plant survey for Abilene State Park. I should stay very busy in my retirement!"

My hat's off to Rick and the task he has set for himself. We can't know what we're in peril of losing until we know what we have now, and with the continuing climate shift, we stand to lose quite a bit.

It's also good to know Rick isn't one of those ivory tower academics who never venture beyond the confines of their own labs. Rick seems eager to share his discoveries with the rest of us in a very readable blog he calls Flora of the Texas Rolling Plains. You can find it by directing your browser to http://txrollingplains.wordpress.com.
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