“When it seems like I’m against a wall, I usually figure out some way to get around or over it,”
In honor of International Women’s Day, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is sharing stories about women in the arboriculture profession throughout the month of March to honor their contributions to the industry.
Linda Chalker-Scott began her career primarily doing fundamental research. She didn’t start doing practical arboriculture until she began working at Washington State University, where she got more involved with arborist education. It was then that she decided to become an ISA Certified Arborist®.
“I was told that if I wanted people to pay attention to me I also need to be an arborist,” she said. “So I took the certification exam and became an ISA Certified Arborist in 1999.”
Chalker-Scott earned her Ph.D. in horticulture from Oregon State University, primarily working in woody plant physiology and minoring in biochemistry and botany. Since then, she has worked for more than 30 years as a horticulturist. Today she works as a professor in Horticulture and Extension Specialist in Urban Horticulture at Washington State University.
In addition to teaching, Chalker-Scott authored several books focusing on science literacy and dispelling poor horticulture and tree care practices. She is best known for her award-winning book “The Informed Gardener,” which received the Best Book Writing Award from the Garden Writers Association.
“I was doing some columns for the Washington State Nursing and Landscape Association just explaining some of the bad practices I was seeing in landscapes and talking about some better science-based practices,” she said. “Then one of the master gardeners in Washington State said, ‘You know what you ought to do with those is put them in a book.’ So that was the motivator to do the first book, and the second one came after that. The response was so great in terms of people really wanting understandable science-based information that I just kept on going.”
Her other books include: “Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest;” “How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do;” and “The Informed Gardener Blooms.”
“One thing I’m proud of is that, completely unexpectedly, I’ve become an author of books that are all science-based and have been really well received,” she said. “They focus on things like horticultural myths and plant physiology for people who aren’t scientists and trying to improve people’s understanding of applied plant and soil sciences.”
Although she has had a successful career, it has been challenging at times. Chalker-Scott remembers the University of Washington firebombing incident where eco-terrorist set of a firebomb at Merrill Hall in the university’s Center for Urban Horticulture.
“I lost my lab and any real ability to conduct any kind of bench research, and at the time, I was also teaching a course in landscape plant selection management,” she said. “I decided to start focusing on fieldwork more, specifically on urban landscapes, why so many urban landscapes fail, and a lot of the core practices that go on in urban landscapes, which encouraged me to do more extension outreach. So in 2004, I switched universities to Washington State University where I could do extension outreach education rather than teaching college classes, and I have not regretted it at all.”
Chalker-Scott has faced several challenges during her career
“At every point that I’ve changed my career, up until my current position, I did have issues with gender equality,” she said. “I was oftentimes the only woman in a department or one of a few women, and the obvious discrimination, especially a few decades ago, was intolerable.”
Rather than stay and deal with intolerance, Chalker-Scott chose to look for other opportunities. Unlike many people in academia who tend to stay at one university for their entire career, she said, Chalker-Scott searched for an institute that valued her work.
“What was more important to me was that I was someplace where I could do what I felt was important and what I did was valued as being important,” she said. “I felt more loyalty to my profession as an educator than my allegiance to an institution.”
Fortunately, Chalker-Scott said that, while she cannot speak for other women, in her experience, the response from the arboriculture community has been more welcoming.
“What I’ve been really impressed with is the response of male arborists,” she said. “I’ve never really felt, most of the time, like my gender has made me seem any less in the eyes of people I’m educating, and that’s been really refreshing because I come from a pretty male-dominated field, biological sciences, and I can tell you that at every institution I’ve been at I’ve felt discriminated against at some point. If you don’t have a population of arborists that reflects diversity, you may not be able to have the same kind of rapport and education experience that you would if somebody sees themselves in you.”
However, despite the challenges, Chalker-Scott said she is grateful she’s remained flexible and resilient.
“When it seems like I’m against a wall, I usually figure out some way to get around or over it,” she said. “I’ve been really pleased in particular that the ISA and particularly the Western Chapter has recognized my efforts in educating arborists, and I’ve gotten some really nice awards from them.”
Another award she received in the 2020 R.W. Harris Author’s Citation Award of distinction that recognizes authors for sustained excellence in the publication of timely information about to the field of arboriculture.
“It was a complete surprise. I had no idea I’d been nominated. It was stunning, and I felt really valued,” Chalker-Scott said. “There have been very few moments where I’ve felt what I’ve been doing has been really appreciated. ISA is one of the few institutions I’m affiliated with where the practical application that professionals are doing comes together with academics and the research they are sharing with those professionals. I think it’s unique in that way in that it blends professionals with academics and the fact that we all come together at the annual conferences is incredibly valuable for networking and making it a better organization. I do appreciate that it is an association for practicing arborists and academics.”
Check out the other Women in Arboriculture profiles.