Nov. 28, Paul Williams

Paul Williams – “The Story of Wisconsin Fast Plants: From the Wisconsin Cabbage Patch into Classrooms Around the World, to the International Space Station and Back”

November 28th, 7pm, 1111 Genetics/Biotechnology Center, 425 Henry Mall

Photo of Paul Williams
Paul Williams

Dr. Williams has been a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1962. He attended the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through his research addressing the diseases of cabbages in the state of Wisconsin, was born the idea of developing a rapid cycling plant (Fast Plants(TM)) as a model for research with a wide range of biological and educational applications.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, was made a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in 1979 and served as its president in 1989, and received the Eriksson Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 1981. He served as Director of the Center for Biology Education on the Madison campus from 1989-1995 and was named Atwood Distinguished Professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1995. He became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996 and received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of British Columbia in 2001.

Dr. Williams continues to inquire, and learn, and share his curiosity with others. In Paul’s Sandbox, Dr. Williams shares some of his latest research into the natural world and the innovative equipment he designs.

2 thoughts on “Nov. 28, Paul Williams”

  1. I grew up in Madison but both of my parents were from Racine. As a family, we travelled to Racine to visit the relatives several times a year and I always watched for the landscape to change from corn to cabbage fields around Franksville. Those fields were pretty to look at and they meant that we were almost at our destination.

    More personal history with cabbage: at least once a year, my Dad (who rarely cooked) would kick us all out of the house for a day so he could make his “kapusta.” This had been a staple food in his immigrant family and not even Mom could make according to his standards. The house would be suffused with a stinky cabbage odor and Dad would fill enough Ball jars with his version of sauerkraut to insure he’d have the food he needed to get through the next year.

    At this lecture, I learned that my hometown, Madison, and my alma mater and workplace, the UW, were responsible in important ways for the healthy cabbage fields I saw from the car window and for ensuring there was plenty of “kapusta” for Dad and his fellow kraut enthusiasts. I never put this together before; this illustrates how the Wisconsin Idea can be right in front of us and yet invisible. It feel proud to know that Madison was aiding Racine and cabbage growers throughout the world.

    Another thing I enjoyed about this lecture was his professor’s advice to “wear three hats.” When Dr. Williams’ research “hat” urged him to find a way to speed up the brassica life cycle, his other two “hats” (teaching, service) soon encouraged him to share fast plants as a teaching tool. The three hats in conversation is an image of the Wisconsin Idea that I will keep with me.

  2. Paul Williams opened his talk titled, “Living the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ from the Wisconsin Cabbage Patch into Classrooms Across the World, to the International Space Station and Back: An agricultural example of the WI Idea and how it has grown and evolved throughout the history of UW,” by stressing that the Wisconsin Idea as always evolving. Although Williams is originally from British Columbia, he was brought to the University of Wisconsin’s plant pathology program in 1959, as it is one of the best university’s for this topic in the world.

    After showing pictures of iconic figures in UW’s history – Van Hise, Chamberlain, Russel, Henry, Babcock – Williams introduced the issue of disease and sick soil that was affecting cabbage plants in the Midwest in the late-1800s and early 1900s. He showed a picture of the Board of Regents of UW meeting in a cabbage field in Racine, addressing the issue directly, on the affected site. While JC Walker was the head of the project for years, he was ready to retire and chose Williams to take his spot. This is where Williams introduced the heading “Constituency and Continuity”. While Williams took over the seat without question, he mentioned that this is an area our University is struggling with today.

    So after Williams took over, he started to research ways that he could make multiple disease resistant cabbage. After he figured this out, he kept an extensive collection of this cabbage on campus and is called the “Rapid Cycling Brassica Collection”. Seeds are produced and are sent around the world – Williams mentioned Taiwan specifically. Another of Williams’ responsibilities was holding an annual meeting with packers, growers, and others who are involved in the raising of cabbage. These meetings would have both farmers and scientists, and the scientists would explain what is ‘new in the cabbage world’ while farmers were able to ask questions. To me, this is a great example of the Wisconsin Idea in action – Williams listened to the farmers’ challenges, and helped to spread new research related to cabbage.

    Williams also shared the story of Fast Plants, brassica seeds that grow much faster than their regular, two-year life cycle. These Fast Plants have been to space, and impact elementary, middle, high school, and college students around the United States and even the world. This program is supported by many different entities, some being WARF, NASA, USDA, and Kellogg. These kits can be found in 20,000 classrooms across the world. After the Fast Plant kits were patented, Williams chose to forgo the royalties and instead invested the money in UW Foundation’s plant pathology account so that the program would have support, even when times get tough. Ensuring the continuity of the program is another way Williams is contributing to the Wisconsin Idea.

    Throughout Williams talk, I could detect the deep passion he has for plants and for the research that he does. It is amazing to think that he retired twenty years ago, but still comes to campus almost every day to interact with students and faculty. Williams is a great example of a man who wears three hats – he not only does research and teaching, but he is also involved in service. The work he is putting into the plant pathology program to ensure it continues to be successful is admirable.

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