When Mark Siegwarth decided last fall to retire, the search began for a qualified person to lead the Arboretum. Luckily, Dr. Seymour (“Sy”) Sohmer, already acquainted with the BTA, applied for the Director’s position. On January 27th, the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) announced that Dr. Sohmer was hired to be the new Director.
On the University’s website, the Dean of CALS, Dr. Shane Burgess, said, “Dr. Sohmer has exceptional experience at the intersection of leadership, education, research, public service, fundraising, and botany. He will engage diverse stakeholders to foster a bright future for Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, both in terms of the biological collection itself and the people—staff, volunteers, and visitors—who make it such a special place.”
Dr. Sohmer’s resume is certainly impressive; he’s had years of experience as a research botanist, university professor, federal employee, and non-profit CEO.
In the late 70s, Sy served with the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Department of Biology during which time he created the University’s Herbarium, which became the third largest in Wisconsin. He also served as a Staff Associate in charge of the Tropical Biology Initiative at the National Science Foundation.
Dr. Sohmer was Assistant Director for Research and Chairman of the Botany Department of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu from 1980 to 1990. He catalyzed a number of major programs, including the Flora of the Philippines Project and plant research efforts in Papua New Guinea (where he had served as a Forest Officer earlier for the PNG government). Dr. Sohmer initiated and led the National Geographic Society-supported Hunstein River Expedition in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea in 1989 (which was covered in an article in National Geographic). He organized the New Caledonia Terrestrial Biodiversity Task Force of the Pacific Science Association in 1990, and organized the Marquesas Expedition funded by Hermes Inc. during 1988 and 1989. The Flora of Hawaii Project, that Sohmer started, culminated in the publication of the Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawai’i in 1990, which was recognized as the world’s best botanical publication of its kind in the 20th Century. Sohmer and his coauthors received the Engler Medal in Silver for this work at the 1993 International Botanical Congress; he was one of only 7 botanists at the time ever to have received this honor. He also served as the Senior Biodiversity Advisor for the Agency for International Development. He managed the Conservation of Biological Diversity Project through which he supported a number of initiatives, such as the Biodiversity Support Program (a consortium of the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute), and interagency programs, such as the A.I.D./NSF (National Science Foundation) collaborative program in biodiversity, as well as the A.I.D./NSF/NIH program called the International Biodiversity Conservation Group Initiative.
As Director of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), he grew the organization from a 3-person staff in a 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse in downtown Fort Worth with an annual budget of $175,000, and approximately 400,000 herbarium specimens to a world-class organization housed in a 69,000 sq. ft. LEED platinum building with 32 staff members adjacent to the Fort Worth Botanical Garden, with an annual budget of about $3 million and a collection of over one million specimens. BRIT is now the eleventh largest herbarium in the United States. Dr. Sohmer presided over the creation of the Institute’s endowment that stood at about $50 million at the time of his departure.
Most recently, Sy has been a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution, and Faculty Affiliate at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
We asked Sy a couple of questions as he prepared to make his move out west.
Q: Have you worked or lived in Arizona before?
A: I’ve been on the board of Biosphere 2 in Oracle for more than ten years. Going to those board meetings twice a year, I began making private trips to the Arboretum as any tourist would. As someone who has spent most of his research career in tropical rain forests, I was captivated by the beauty of the desert and surprised at how diverse the flora of arid lands really is. I am looking forward to learning a great deal more.
Q: Do you have any priorities in mind as you lead Boyce Thompson Arboretum into the future?
A: My immediate priorities are to meet with every staff member one on one, to assess the financial needs of the BTA, and to begin exploring opportunities to build a powerful fundraising program benefitting the Arboretum. I also want to show the staff that I am a very open and transparent person. I want them to be comfortable with me. I have met only nice folks at BTA.