Dr. Kelly Major Shares Passion for Plant Physiology

Posted on July 29, 2020 by Amber Day
Amber Day

Dr. Kelly Major, full professor of biology, has taught in the University of South Alabama College of Arts and Sciences for more than 19 years. She recently shared her passion for plant physiology.  data-lightbox='featured'
Dr. Kelly Major recently recorded GPS coordinates for newly established sampling sites in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta as part of her research.

Dr. Kelly Major is a professor of biology and has taught in the University of South Alabama College of Arts and Sciences since 2001.

Teaching is something that comes naturally to Major. Even as a child, she wanted to be an educator. 

“I was one of those unusual kids,” Major said. “I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. While growing up in the 1970s, the weekly television program ‘The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau’ fascinated me. I was also encouraged by my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Don Parsons, to pursue my interest in science.” 

Later, as an undergraduate at Elmira College, Major started learning everything she could about plant physiology because of the dynamic lectures of Dr. Lee Kass. She also credits her mother for helping to foster her interest in science. 

Major earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Maine, Orono, and shortly after started her first post-doc at the University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute. In 2000, Major started her second post-doc at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla.

Prior to joining the USA Department of Biology, Major’s research focused on various facets of physiological responses in algae and plants to temperature, light, salinity and UV radiation. 

“For the past 18 years, my research interests have expanded to include practical and ecological problems associated with invasive plants, benthic algal productivity, ecological monitoring of coastal and aquatic plant communities, as well as the importance of disturbance, whether human-influenced or natural, in determining native plant community resilience and biodiversity in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta,” Major said.

Major really enjoys teaching courses like “Plant Physiological Ecology” and “Professionalism in Science.” In “Plant Physiological Ecology,” students explore how plants function in environments that are always undergoing some type of change.

“This is the platform from which I can enthusiastically preach the complex evolutionarily adaptive abilities plants display to physiologically adjust to prevailing conditions, juxtaposed against strategies displayed among more mobile organisms,” Major said.

Major taught the “Professionalism in Science” course with the late Dr. Brian Axsmith, who passed away recently from COVID-19. According to Major, in class, she and Axsmith would “tell stories from vastly different perspectives related to gender, traditional vs. non-traditional student experiences, and mentorship from young vs. established advisors.”

“Students benefitted from hearing their respective takes on gender bias in science, the importance of choosing a mentor, sexual harassment, the realities of tenure and promotion, balance between home and work, and professionalism in the technological age,” Major said. “I will miss my friend dearly as I figure out how to navigate this class alone this fall.”

When a student asks Major reasons for becoming a biology major, she tells the student about career options, which include healthcare, consulting, industrial science, applied science, academic careers, and teaching K-12, as well as state and federal science jobs, parks and land management, and even jobs in communication and journalism.  According to Major, "being a biology major is often both exciting and sometimes daunting."

"Biology encompasses most other sciences and, therefore, includes a curriculum of biology, chemistry, physics, math, genetics, molecular biology, statistics, computer modeling, and more," Major said. "Thus, any biology program is going to consist of a rigorous course load.” 

When she is not in the midst of research or teaching, Major enjoys reading, listening to music (classic rock and blues), and going to the beach. Likewise, she enjoys cooking and baking. Originally from upstate New York, Major said she misses family, New York pizza, bagels, pasta and Buffalo hot wings. She definitely enjoys watching sports, particularly the New York Giants and Yankees. 

Major is currently assisting her most recent graduates in publishing their work pertaining to what we know about invasive plant physiology and the native plant communities of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. She is also mentoring her two graduate students and seeking grant funding to support her lab’s ongoing research in the Delta. In addition, Major is working with her colleague, Joel Borden, to publish the 20-year catalog of plant and environmental data from the Delta compiled by her late husband, Smoot Major. 

“Smoot’s love of biology was organic, no pun intended,” Major said. “He had a childlike wonder about the natural world that compelled him to learn more. He wanted to share his knowledge and that was his gift to us. He could relate to people like no one else, regardless of age, station, or education. He loved learning and loved people. He loved teaching. Most of all, he loved his research and was committed to conserving his beloved Delta, taking every opportunity to educate Alabamians about the hidden treasure that lay in their midst.”

Major says she is committed to helping students understand what scientists do.

“Particularly, I want to help students understand how science is conducted, and its relevance to all of our lives, which is particularly relevant given the COVID-19 pandemic,” Major said. 

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