Nathaniel Mitkowski teaches students impact of plants

The chair of the department of plant science Nathaniel Mitkowski shares his life-long love for plants. PHOTO CREDIT: uri.edu

Nathaniel Mitkowski, professor and the chair of the department of plant sciences and entomology at the University of Rhode Island, has been interested in plants since he was 12 years old. 

“I had grown up in the middle of a small city, but when I was 12 my parents moved to a very rural, heavily forested area in Connecticut,”  Mitkowski said. “There were no other kids near me so I spent countless hours roaming the forest and learning about all the plants and animals that lived there.” 

His passion for plants continued all throughout his life to today. When he was 15, Mitkowski worked at a Boy Scouts camp, eventually becoming the nature director of that camp. When it was time to complete his eagle project, he decided to do a botanical survey of plants present at a conservation property in his town.

He earned a Bachelor of Science in plant pathology in 1997 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and went on to earn a doctorate in plant pathology from Cornell University in 200.

As a student and a professor, Mitkowski has focused his research on diseases in plants.

“My primary research is not actually directly on plants, but focuses on the microorganisms that cause plant disease,” Mitkowski said. “I initially worked with diseases of vegetables but have spent the last 20 years working with bacteria, fungi and nematodes that attack turfgrasses.”

At URI Mitkowski teaches many classes, but his favorite is PLS 150: Plant, People and the Planet. He has also taught PLS 440: Diseases of Turf and Ornamentals, PLS 332: Power Units, PLS 471: Plant Improvement and PLS 442: Advanced Turf Management. 

This spring he also began teaching PLS 332: Plant Pathology.

“I try to connect to students in this class by showing them how the lives of plants impacts the life of all of us and even the health of the planet,” Mitkowski said.

He said that he believes it is impossible to understate the importance of plants in the world today because they impact human civilizations and global ecosystems.

“All sugars are created by photosynthesis and plants and their less advanced relatives are the only organisms that contain chlorophyll and undertake photosynthesis,” Mitkowski said. “All life requires sugar and without plants, there is no way to turn the sun’s energy into sugars. Ninety-nine percent of life on earth ultimately consumes the sugars produced by plants.”

Brian Maynard, professor of plant sciences, has also been fascinated by plants since he was a child. 

Maynard agreed with Mitkowski that plants may be the key to solving global warming. 

“They take carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in organic matter,” Maynard said. “Deforestation and urbanization both serve to reduce the density of plant life on earth and this makes our carbon problems even worse.”

Maynard came to URI in 1992 and has worked with Mitkowski ever since.

“He has been a friend, collaborator and for the last 8 years, the chairperson of our department. He has always been a good sounding board for my ideas and concerns, and supportive of my work,” Maynard said. 

Dr. Mitkowski continues to strive for his students’ success by helping them in class and now as chair of the department.