Santa Clara University


Inspiring Students Inside and Outside the Lab

In his rooftop greenhouse, Assistant Biology Professor Justen Whittall (center) studies the genetic variations of rare California plants with help from student assistants including Jason Buenrostro (left) and Cindy Dick (right).
Photo: FJ Gaylor Photography

Justen Whittall ’96 is an expert on West Coast plants, particularly the ones that are hardest to find. The SCU biology assistant professor, a native of the South Bay, studies the federally endangered Metcalf Jewelflower and California’s Torrey pines, among the rarest pines in the world.

But it’s interacting with students rather than plants that Whittall finds most gratifying as a professor. He enjoys sharing his love of wild places and his understanding of the complex science underlying ecosystems.

“I see students’ eyes just light up when—instead of doing the cookbook labs taught in high school or at other institutions—at Santa Clara they get to take that information directly into a personal experience,” Whittall says. “This is real science being done by Santa Clara undergraduates.”

Whittal also conducts research in Alaska. Last summer, he traveled north to collect mustard plants to better understand the genetic adaptability of arctic species—a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of knowledge needed to grasp global climate change. Next summer, he’ll return with several undergraduates to collect more specimens to bring back to the lab.

By putting together a genetic map of a species, Whittall can track how a plant has evolved over time. Students help in his rooftop greenhouse, making hybridizations; in the lab, isolating gene sequences; and out in the field, collecting specimens.

This kind of hands-on experience is prized by students. “This has definitely been the best school that I could have chosen,” says Jason Buenrostro ’09, an engineering and biology double major who works in Whittall’s lab on Torrey pine genome sequencing. He’s found outstanding research opportunities in both biology and engineering, and a real enthusiasm for interdisciplinary work, at Santa Clara.

It was a similar kind of fieldwork at SCU that set Whittall on his path. “As an undergraduate, I took a course in field botany and discovered I could take what I was learning in the classroom and lab and put it to use in the field,” he says. “From that moment, I was hooked.”