May 9, 2018
‘Infectious interest’ helps earn UF/IFAS professor top honor

University of Florida environmental horticulture professor Sandra Wilson loves to teach, but just as importantly, she loves to hear about the successes of her former students. They find employment in their field. They get married. Those moments bring a gleam to her eyes.

Former students are now adjunct professors, scientists, an entrepreneur, a horticultural and landscape foreman and more, she said.

“One of the proudest moments for me is when a student forwards me a job offer that they just accepted, or an invitation to a wedding or a baby announcement,” Wilson said. “We stay in touch after graduation.”

Those “keep-in-touch” moments come after many hours of teaching and learning, and they’re part of the reason Wilson has been named the graduate educator of the year by the American Society of Horticultural Sciences. She will receive the honor July 31 in Washington, D.C.

Wilson learns her students’ names, brings enthusiasm and broad knowledge to class and explains why plants are so important, her former students say. Dozens of her former students sing Wilson’s praises.

Wilson, a faculty member with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said she’s humbled and honored by the nomination from her graduate students and peers, and she’s even more honored to have been selected at the national level.

“Graduate education and the mentoring of graduate students is something that has always brought me immense pleasure,” Wilson said. “My graduate students motivate me to be the best I can be. I was fortunate to have great mentors during my graduate degree days, and I believe in giving back.”

One former student said she thought the syllabus appeared a bit onerous, and she didn’t think the class could accomplish all the goals in one semester, but they did.

“Because of her infectious interest in horticulture and native plants and her wealth of knowledge, Dr. Wilson was able to teach us more about each plant than just its name and characteristics,” Carol Roberts said. “For instance she explained that the common name for Eugenia varieties, called ‘Stoppers,’ came from Native Americans ingesting it to ‘stop’ intestinal problems.”

Former students describe Wilson, as kind, welcoming, smart and tough. They also say she embraces distance learning and other technologies.

Wilson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from the University of Delaware and her doctorate in plant physiology from Clemson University.

She teaches graduate courses in Florida native landscaping, plant propagation and annual and perennial gardening. Wilson has chaired or co-chaired committees for five doctoral students and 14 master’s students.

Wilson was a Roche professor, a position in which she provided distance learning education leadership to faculty and staff in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

She also was named CALS Undergraduate Teacher of the Year for 2007-08, the American Society for Horticultural Sciences Outstanding Undergraduate Educator in 2012 and has developed a number of innovative online teaching tools to help students learn plants.

In her nomination packet, Wilson is described as being hands-on with her students. She reviews their course schedules, gives them research advice and makes suggestions about graduate teaching, research publications, grant writing and career placement.

Wilson’s research complements her teaching, said her department chair, Dean Kopsell. She often teaches class in her natural garden. Student evaluations of Wilson’s teaching consistently place her above college and departmental averages.

“It is clear to see that Dr. Wilson is a shining example of sustained commitment to graduate education in the environmental horticulture department,” Kopsell said.

– Brad Buck, University of Florida

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