Alumni Spotlight: Auburn University College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) Alumnus Brian Keener Wears Many Hats
As professor of biological sciences at the University of West Alabama (UWA), curator of the university’s herbarium, coordinator of the Alabama Plant Atlas, and recently appointed Assistant Dean of UWA’s School of Graduate Studies, Keener uses his excitement for the field of botany and the state of Alabama in many ways.
Keener received a Bachelor of Science in Botany from Auburn in 1996. His classes and professors in what was then known as the Botany and Microbiology Department introduced him to many new topics – some of which he teaches to his students today.
“Dr. Roland Dute was perhaps the most professorial professor I ever had as a teacher. He was exceptionally professional and at the top of his game. In the courses that I instruct now, I often teach various topics of plant anatomy, much of which I was first exposed to in Plant Development, a class Dr. Dute co-taught with Dr. Curt Peterson,” Keener said.
Keener credits several Auburn professors and instructors for making his studies at Auburn worthwhile, including Dr. Robert Boyd, Dr. John Weete, Dr. Kira Bowen, and Mr. Larry Dalrymple. In addition to these great influencers, Dr. George Folkerts and Dr. John Freeman left a lasting impact on Keener that helped him dive even further into the field of botany.
Prior to his graduation from Auburn, Keener worked for Dr. Freeman in the Auburn University Herbarium, later renamed the John D. Freeman Herbarium. Dr. Freeman drove Keener across the state to see Alabama’s interesting plant habitats first-hand, and to look into graduate programs at various institutions.
After his graduation, Keener spent the summer of 1996 working in Dr. Folkerts’ lab. Dr. Folkerts also introduced Keener to Alabama plant life, including the endangered Panhandle Lily (Lilium iriodollae).
“I will always appreciate his [Dr. Folkerts’] giving of knowledge and time that he shared so freely,” Keener said.
Now, Keener’s the one sharing his knowledge.
Keener instructs General Botany, Field Botany, Plant Biodiversity, Principles of Biology, and Endangered Species of Alabama courses at UWA. After preparing for each class, Keener spends his days conducting curatorial and research activities, including identifying specimens under the microscope, filling new specimens into the herbarium collection, writing a scientific paper, managing the Alabama Plant Atlas, and overseeing student workers who help with it all, he said.
Keener’s impact in the field of botany does not go unnoticed. In his more than 16 years as curator of UWA’s herbarium, Keener has helped the collection grow from five half cases of about 1,000 poorly curated specimens, to 40 full cases and 35 half cases of more than 45,000 specimens, he said.
Keener primarily studies vascular plant biodiversity of Alabama, exploring the state while collecting specimens for examination. While conducting his own research and managing the research of two graduate students, Keener works on writing his book – a much needed detailing of the Flora of Alabama.
However, a great deal of Keener’s research time is devoted to his management of the Alabama Plant Atlas, “a Wikipedia for the Alabama flora,” he said.
The Atlas includes data from all of the major state collections, including Auburn’s, totaling more than 200,000 specimens with many containing true images. Keener manages the data presented on the Atlas website, keeping it as up-to-date as possible.
All of this work is rooted out of a deep love for his state and a true love of botany, Keener said.
So far, Keener has helped name six new species, including three Alabama endemics, two of those new species in one particular genus of mints.
“When I have the opportunity to explore new habitats and see new plants, it still excites me as much as when I just started. There is no doubt that the most exciting moments are making new discoveries of entities in nature that are new to science and requiring naming and describing,” Keener said.