Dr. Wendy Silk earns the 2021 ISRR Lifetime Achievement Award

(L to R) Dr. Robert Sharp presents the ISRR Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Wendy Silk.

Dr. Wendy Silk earns the 2021 ISRR Lifetime Achievement Award

By Shelby Matthews

Some people just have science in their blood. That’s how it was for Dr. Wendy Kuhn Silk, growing up at least. 

Her father, Lester Kuhn, who was the head of the ballistics research lab in Aberdeen, Maryland, developed propellants and pioneered the use of infrared spectroscopy to discover the shape of molecules. Science was encouraged in the Kuhn household to say the least. 

Both Silk and her brother grew up competing and winning in science fairs and then she went on to study applied mathematics in biology at Harvard University. At the time, science was a field that few women chose as their path. 

“There weren’t very many women in the classes,” Silk said.  “I started out as an applied math major and there were over 300 majors and only three of us were girls. So we weren’t taken very seriously.”

After Harvard, Silk went to the University of California-Berkeley for her PhD in botany. She then went on to work for the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources at the University of California-Davis. 

“I felt very comfortable there, partly because of the hydrologists, the irrigation people and the soil scientists who think in terms of transport laws, which is a big part of what I wound up applying to the study of plants, taking these concepts from fluid dynamics in particular,” Silk said. 

Unlike many scientists, Silk enjoyed bringing math into her work, which for plant science was rare. That’s what interested Dr. Robert Sharp in Silk’s work when he joined her lab as a postdoctoral scientist. 

“She brings the mathematics to bear on plant physiology or plant biology and that’s still relatively unusual today, but particularly when she was really getting going on this back then,” Sharp said.  “For a female scientist to combine mathematics and biology together was quite unusual.”

Sharp, who is now a professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri and is the director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, uses Silk’s work in his own research and his teaching. Silk’s groundbreaking achievements were the foundation for why he nominated Silk for the Lifetime Achievement Award for the International Society of Root Research. 

“She’s had a career of novel approaches that led to novel understandings, not just in her own work, but allowed me and other people around the world to address some questions that we probably wouldn’t have known to do otherwise,” Sharp said. 

Dr. John Boyer, a plant science professor at the University of Missouri, also worked with Silk and even nominated her for a different award a couple of years ago. 

“Wendy’s work uniquely combines mathematical analysis of development together with experiments that test her analytical conclusions applied primarily to roots. This combination and their brilliance applied to a relatively neglected area that is so unusual it needs special recognition,” he wrote for her nomination. 

Along with being a pioneer with her techniques, Silk has also been a pioneer for bringing music into the science classroom at UC-Davis.  She asks her students to create songs that go along with the topics they are discussing and then perform them. 

“We find that the student engagement goes up when they can be creative in this way,” Silk said. “They learn a lot more when they’re using their bodies than they do when it’s just sitting here and listening to a professor.”

President of ISRR, Michelle Watt, commended Silk for combining science with music along with combining so many scientific approaches. 

“Wendy Silk is an all around kind and gentle human being,” Watt said. “She was ahead of her time and actually exemplifies today’s contemporary and emerging leading scientist – a scientist that crosses disciplines of biology, mathematics, physics and chemistry, and achieves creativity through crossing into the arts and engaging with students of diverse academic backgrounds.”

Watt met Silk in 2002 at the ISRR conference in Japan. Even though Watt is based in Australia, she had heard and read about Silk’s use of kinematics. 

Silk taught many courses at UC-Davis and continues to encourage and support young people going into the field. 

“Scientists, please, please, please persist,” she said of today’s scientists. “We need you more than we ever have needed you in the course of human history. Keep at it, keep at your bench work, your field work, your modeling, but also try to reach out and march for science.”

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