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Botany professor first to receive new Rebecca Blank Professorship 

February 16, 2023 By Elise Mahon
Katherine McCulloh holds the signed letter on UW–Madison letterhead announcing that she has been named the first to hold the newly created Rebecca Blank Professorship.

Professor of Botany Katherine McCulloh holds up the letter establishing her as the first faculty member to hold the newly created Rebecca Blank Professorship. Named for Chancellor Emerita Blank, the professorship honors recently tenured faculty who mirror Blank’s commitment to UW–Madison. University of Wisconsin–Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor of Botany Katherine McCulloh has been awarded the inaugural appointment for the newly established Rebecca Blank Professorship.

This new professorship fund was created by donations from many generous alumni and friends of the university, to honor the leadership and service of Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank.

“The professorship is designed to recognize an outstanding faculty with a stellar research and teaching record and commitment to service who was tenured in the last four years,” says Provost John Karl Scholz. “The record is clear that Professor McCulloh is indeed a stellar scholar, teacher and colleague, and I’m thrilled that she will be the first Rebecca Blank Professor.”

McCulloh, who is a plant ecological physiologist, completed her PhD in 2004 at the University of Utah before joining Oregon State as a postdoctoral researcher and later, as an assistant professor in their Department of Forest Ecosystems. In 2013, she joined UW–Madison as an assistant professor in the Department of Botany and was granted tenure in 2019.

“Becky Blank has been a hero of mine since I arrived at UW–Madison,” McCulloh says. “So, to win an award that is named after her is truly humbling.”

In her time at UW–Madison, McCulloh has proven she is a charismatic and highly gifted teacher. In 2021, she was recognized with a Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and students have described her as an engaging and inspirational instructor.

The courses she teaches range from large introductory lectures to advanced graduate courses and seminars. She has even given Badgers hands-on experience through field courses in California and Australia.

McCulloh is also committed to the success of the next generation, as evidenced by the group of 42 graduate, postdoctoral and undergraduate students she has mentored. She is excited to continue to support the research and professional development of the students in her lab with funding from this professorship.

As a plant ecological physiologist, McCulloh studies how plants’ hydraulics — their ability to internally transport water — are affected by their environment. Specifically, she works with her lab to learn how differences in species’ responses to things like drought and extreme temperatures lead to the mosaic of plant communities that make up landscapes today.

She is one of the leading international experts on plant hydraulics and has made considerable contributions to the field’s understanding of water transport optimization in plants and the role of hydraulics in plants’ responses to climate change. She is working to use this knowledge to predict how productive some ecosystems may be under future environmental conditions.

“Kate is a world class scientist, phenomenal teacher and a caring and compassionate mentor,” says Kenneth J. Sytsma, professor and chair of the Botany Department. “I can think of no one better suited to receive this inaugural professorship.”