As part of a presentation she gave in late March, Becky Dolan talked about the importance of flexibility and adaptability in life. She pointed to her career as an example.
“I thought I would be a professor at a university,” the Director of Butler’s Friesner Herbarium said. “This was a different route. There was a lot of serendipity that happened along the way that worked out well for me.”
Thirty-one years later, as she prepares to retire from Butler, Dolan looks back proudly at her achievements, which include working with her assistant Marcia Moore and many students to create a searchable database of more than 40,000 Indianapolis and Indiana dried, pressed, and preserved plant specimens.
“Largely because of her hard work,” Butler Biology Professor Carmen Salsbury said, “the Friesner Herbarium is locally, regionally, and nationally recognized.”
Dolan grew up in the Detroit area and moved with her family when she was in middle school to a suburban area that had woods, natural areas, and a creek. She liked spending time in the woods, and she was good in science—especially biology—so her high school guidance counselor suggested medical school.
She went to the University of Michigan, where she was one of 1,500 undergraduate pre-professional majors in biology. One of the required courses was botany.
“It was fascinating to me,” she said. “I was struggling in an animal physiology class I was taking, but the botany came easily and it felt like things I already knew—and was learning again. I loved learning more about things I was seeing in the woods and understanding more about their biology and their life cycle and knowing their names.”
She changed her major to botany—there were only 70 botany majors—and found both a subject she enjoyed and a tight-knit community.
After graduating, she moved to the University of Georgia for graduate school. She missed the burgeoning music scene in Athens, but she did meet her future husband, Tom, there. He was also a graduate student who had started school a year before her.
They had mutual friends, and at one point she learned that Tom and his girlfriend had broken up. She invited him to a campus movie. He blew her off, saying he had to study for a test, but the following week he called and they had dinner together.
In 1981, Tom and Becky got married. They decided they’d both apply for jobs and take the best offer. When Tom took a two-year position doing research at the University of California, Riverside, Becky took a job with an environmental-consulting firm, where she received some grants from the Bureau of Land Management to study rare plants in Napa and Sonoma counties.
After Tom was hired in 1985 to teach at Butler, the Holcomb Research Institute (HRI) at Butler, which employed a half-dozen Ph.D. plant ecologists studying areas like acid rain and the effects of air pollution, gave Becky a courtesy appointment so she could apply for grants and figure out ways to work with its researchers.
One of those projects turned out to be a study of a red-flowered prairie plant called royal catchfly. An HRI researcher named Eric Menges had been studying the plant for years and he was looking at how prairie management like burning or mowing was affecting the viability of populations to promote long-term management and preservation of them. She asked if he had genetic info. He said no. She said she could get it. They collaborated and published work on the effects of fire on promoting stability of these prairie plant populations.
Orie Loucks, then the director of the HRI, also funded a part-time position so she could work at the Friesner Herbarium. When HRI was closed a couple of years later, Paul Yu, Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, created the position of Director of the herbarium and hired her.
Dolan expanded the reach and scope of herbarium outreach, working with students such as Raelene Crandall ’97 to inventory the plants in local parks. Dolan hadn’t done field work in Indianapolis, so that was her first look at local plants. Through the years, Dolan did more inventories and studies in local parks and realized that they were a treasure trove of information about plants that can grow wild in the city. That led to a number of publications in urban ecology, a growing area of interest in the field of ecology.
Crandall, meanwhile, is now an Assistant Professor of Fire Science at University of Florida.
“Becky has consistently produced novel research that has evolved and expanded over time,” Crandall said in a letter she wrote nominating Dolan for a Woman of Distinction Award. “Additionally, she has strived to digitize and improve the Friesner Herbarium, drawing researchers from all over the country to use and benefit from the plant collections. She has received many grants and mentored countless students over her long career at Butler University. Many researchers slow down in their later years, but in fact, we have discussed a new collaboration when she retires and moves to Florida.”
Dolan’s work locally coincided with the development of Butler’s Center for Urban Ecology, which she worked on with Biology Professors Carmen Salsbury and Travis Ryan to get organized and funded. Salsbury said the CUE wouldn’t exist without Dolan’s dedication and leadership in its early years.
She described Dolan as “a reliable and steady presence in the department contributing tirelessly behind the scenes and in the larger Butler and surrounding communities to initiatives promoting plant research and conservation, student research experiences, citizen science opportunities, and educational outreach.”
The new Director of the herbarium will be Emily Gillespie, who comes to Butler from Marshall University. She also will teach in the Department of Biological Sciences.
Becky and Tom Dolan, meanwhile, plan to spend most of the year living in a house they built on St. George Island, a pristine and quiet locale in the Florida panhandle. But Becky said she’ll maintain some ties to Butler. She will have affiliate status with the Center for Urban Ecology and continue to work on projects she’s started.
“This was an unexpected career path,” Dolan said, “but I really appreciated the opportunities that Butler gave me and I’m proud of having sustained this position for more than 30 years.”
Marc Allan MFA ’18