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A New Leader for the Center for Tree Science

A new leader with deep roots is now leading the Center for Tree Science, the research hub of The Morton Arboretum.

Soil ecologist Meghan Midgley, PhD, a scientist at the center for nearly 10 years, now leads the team of more than 30 researchers who work with colleagues around the world to deepen knowledge of trees and their ecosystems.

As the center’s director, she said, “I want to ensure we communicate clearly about the science we’ve done so far and identify what we need to do bigger and better.”

In less than a decade, the Center for Tree Science has greatly expanded the research that has been central to the Arboretum since its founding. Its growth has been propelled by the critical support of donors, especially through the Growing Brilliantly campaign, which concluded in 2018.

The center—which Midgley describes as “both a research station and a think tank”—is a base for interdisciplinary investigations by influential scientists in such fields as conservation biology, arboriculture, and forest ecology. Its scientific guidance for practitioners who care for trees, conserve tree species, and restore natural landscapes is respected worldwide.

Midgley succeeds Chuck Cannon, PhD, the center’s founding director, who remains at the Arboretum as a senior scientist in ecological evolution. “Chuck shaped the center and established its vision,” she said. “I have something really strong to build on.”

Among her goals are to expand the center’s international scientific collaboration and its mentorship programs to nurture new scientists; to better share the Arboretum’s knowledge with the public; to create stronger awareness of the Arboretum’s work in science; and to make the most of the Arboretum’s unique scientific treasure: its living collections.

“There aren’t many places in the world where so much genetic diversity of woody plants is represented in such a small area, with so many old trees, and with records of where most trees came from in the wild,” Midgley said. “It’s an incredible resource for scientists—we’re all outdoors as much as we’re in our labs. And we want to expand the Arboretum’s impact by bringing more visiting researchers onto the grounds to take advantage of it.”

Knowledge developed from research on the Arboretum’s grounds has improved tree care, tree planting, and restoration. Midgley hopes to increase that influence, in part by listening.

“We’re interested in addressing the problems that people want to see addressed, to identify research questions that have real utility,” she said.

Her own research is about as down-to-earth as it can get. As head of the Soil Ecology Research Group since 2015, she investigates interactions in the soil among plants, underground microbes such as fungi and bacteria, and the larger ecosystem. For example, she studies the effects of oak ecosystem restoration on the ecosystem of living organisms in the soil and how nonnative earthworms are changing soils as they invade new habitats.

Midgley has published in leading scientific journals and secured major research funding—important preparation for her leadership role. In 2022, she was one of the first recipients of a Biota Award under a Walder Foundation program recognizing leaders in biodiversity science.

She takes special pride in her work as a mentor, helping undergraduate and graduate students, fellows, and staff reach personal and professional goals and bringing new minds and voices into tree science. “I love research,” Midgley says. “But I also gain so much fulfillment from watching other people grow and succeed.”

Mentorship is a core purpose of the Center for Tree Science, with an Integrated Mentorship Program that supports scholars from high school through postgraduate fellowships. Midgley said the informal credo of its staff is: Do great science. Do great science with other people. Mentor.

Midgley’s appointment comes as Arboretum science has a newly defined strategic direction: to advance and share knowledge of trees and their ecosystems to address the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Climate change and biodiversity loss are the great challenges of our time for trees and the people who live among them,” said Murphy Westwood, vice president of science and conservation. “With Meghan’s leadership, the Center for Tree Science is ready to make an even greater contribution to facing those challenges.”