A view of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee from WCU's webcam. Photo courtesy of WCU via uccam.wcu.edu.

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Western Carolina University recently strengthened its ties with The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville by assuming administrative support tasks previously carried out by the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

WCU will assist the arboretum, an affiliate of the University of North Carolina system, and its executive director George Briggs with administrative needs related to facilities, human resources and operations. The move is intended to guide the arboretum to a freestanding administrative position and to improve efficiency, as WCU already offers construction support to the arboretum and is positioned to assist with its growing research and intellectual property endeavors, said Linda Seestedt-Stanford, WCU interim provost.

“This will allow us to have more opportunities for collaboration in terms of research and pooling resources to support our shared educational objectives,” Seestedt-Stanford said. “It really is a win-win for all concerned.”

A 434-acre public garden located within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest of the Pisgah National Forest, the arboretum promotes the stewardship and enjoyment of the wealth of plant life within the Southern Appalachians. Visitors can enjoy 10 miles of hiking and biking trails, exhibits, a bonsai collection, a cafe, adult and youth education programs, and special events such as a Heritage Crafts Day and plant shows.

“The arboretum’s growing significance in educational, research and economic development endeavors makes the partnership with WCU a logical transition as the arboretum celebrates its 25th anniversary,” Briggs said. “We believe that this collaboration will assist both institutions in a variety of ways, but most importantly, will add value to the service both provide to their constituencies and stakeholders throughout North Carolina and beyond.”

One goal of the partnership is to strengthen the relationship between the arboretum and Highlands Biological Station, an inter-institutional, year-round field research station that WCU also supports administratively. The station not only hosts research scientists from around the world but also academic and educational programs for adults and youth.

Scott Higgins, dean of the graduate school and chief research officer at WCU, said a “tangible relationship between HBS researchers engaged in native plant ecology and genetic research and the scientists at the arboretum’s Bent Creek Institute engaged in natural medicinal product identification and safety is a match made in heaven.”

The partnership “would potentially create new revenue streams opened up by new lines of applied research – a win for both organizations and WCU,” Higgins said.

“The research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students will expand beyond the campus and the outcome of their work could potentially result in significant economic benefit for the region,” he said.

WCU, the arboretum and HBS have common research interests, and each institution has its own strengths, said James T. Costa, director of the station and WCU professor of biology.

“We look forward to working with the arboretum and Western Carolina to develop and host programming and research opportunities that are tailored to the unique biological assets of this region – areas such as native plant ecology and genetics in connection with natural products, and monitoring and interpreting climate change,” Costa said.

Founded in 1927, the Highlands Biological Station acquired its first laboratory for scientific research in 1930. Since that time, scientists based at the station have made significant contributions in a number of fields, particularly in the study of salamander biology, plant ecology, mycology and aquatic ecology.

“The many decades of environmental research based at the Highlands Biological Station has yielded a deep knowledge base of regional organisms and ecological systems, and tapping into this knowledge base and building on our research tradition will give us a leg up in seeking competitive funding for joint initiatives,” said Costa. “Above all, there is strength in collaboration.”

Kathleen O'Nan

Kathleen O'Nan is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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