New VP Murphy Westwood is Firmly Rooted in Science and Conservation
Murphy Westwood, PhD, has built an impressive career in conservation at The Morton Arboretum since she started as a tree conservation specialist in 2013. Within a year, she began developing the Global Tree Conservation Program, building a noteworthy team of researchers focusing on threatened tree species in biodiversity hotspots. She became program director in 2017.
She has a strong background in plant science, both in the lab and in the field, as evidenced by a long list of technical publications. That combination of expertise prepared Westwood for her newest assignment at the Arboretum: vice president of science and conservation.
“Science is at the root of everything we do at the Arboretum,” she says, “and conservation is a natural extension and application of the science.”
Westwood’s passion for tree science and conservation goes back to her undergraduate days at the University of Michigan—as an English major. “After two years, I hadn’t taken any English classes, just environmental science and plant-focused classes,” she says. On her advisor’s advice, she switched majors to environmental science—“and I really loved it.”
Westwood did graduate work in England, earning a master’s degree in plant evolution and taxonomy at Imperial College London. Her classes were held at the city’s Natural History Museum, and her research, focusing on palm trees, was conducted at the famed Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “It was life-changing,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work in botanic gardens after that.” She went on to receive a doctorate from Cambridge University. Her research in developmental genetics investigated the evolution of floral features that attract pollinators.
After returning to the Chicago area, Westwood taught at the Chicago Botanic Garden and then did research at an agricultural biotech company. She wanted to return to what she calls “the botanic garden conservation ecosystem.” Joining the Arboretum enabled Westwood to integrate her scientific knowledge with her passion for the conservation of plants.
Of the new role she assumed in April 2021, she says, “I’m moving into strategic leadership to identify what the pressing needs are for plants and trees and to understand what needs to happen to ensure that we have trees for a healthy future.”
Westwood manages three major program areas. The Chicago Region Trees Initiative supports a healthy urban forest, which includes helping municipalities care for their trees and addressing the inequitable distribution of trees. The Center for Tree Science is the site of academic research projects, including work in forest ecology, genetics, and conservation biology–fundamental research that has meaningful real-world applications. The Global Tree Conservation Program leads projects in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and China to save threatened trees from extinction through global collaborations.
In addition, Westwood represents the Arboretum in many conservation partnerships. Her leadership role with the Global Conservation Consortium for Oak reflects the Arboretum’s strong focus on the science and conservation of this diverse and important group of trees.
“Not many public gardens are operating at the level that The Morton Arboretum is in terms of influencing policy and outcomes at the local, national, and international scale to deliver real impacts for trees,” Westwood says.
“We’ll continue to do what we do well and continue to grow and support our flagship programs,” she says. “We also have to be as nimble and responsive as we can to a rapidly changing environment.”
More than anything else, Westwood is committed to reversing the rampant loss of biodiversity—the reduction in the variety of life on earth—that she has witnessed firsthand. “We don’t know what the impact and implications of any more biodiversity loss will have on our ecosystems’ ability to be resilient,” she says. “Trees are the backbones of their ecosystems, and they are at risk.”
Citing the many benefits trees provide—habitat, food, clean water, clean air, and beauty—she says, “We need more trees, not fewer trees.”
Along with her influence on tree conservation around the world, Westwood fosters awareness at home. She and her husband have a son, 5, and a daughter, 3. “They are already little nature lovers,” she says.