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August 30, 2007

Making Pitt Work: Ellen York

Behind the scenes at Pitt, University staff, some 6,500 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, costume designers to biosafety officers, photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.


Ellen York goes to work each day in a penthouse suite, but she doesn’t carry a briefcase or don a business suit. And while her office offers great views of Oakland, luxurious amenities are nowhere to be found.

Few are aware that her office even exists, and only the keenest observers may have caught a glimpse of her domain — Pitt’s greenhouse atop Langley Hall.

As Pitt’s plant growth facilities manager, York is in charge of the space where Pitt botanists conduct their research. She is responsible for the University’s four-bay, 2,000-square-foot research greenhouse, a smaller greenhouse on the roof of adjacent Clapp Hall and ground-level growth chambers where plants are germinated.

York, who came to Pitt in 1994 from Phipps Conservatory, majored in botany at Pomona College and earned a graduate degree in the subject at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She grew up in California, where her father taught high school science and her mother was a nurse. “In California, plants are so much a part of your life, you can’t help but be curious,” she said, recalling that from the time she was a child, she was certain she’d either work as an outpost nurse or as a botanist.

“So, I got what I wanted,” she said, adding that her job allows her to be involved in science as well as supporting research, growing plants, teaching and working with people.

Pitt has no botany department, but several faculty members in the Department of Biological Sciences conduct research into plant evolution and genetics.

Among York’s green companions are the wild strawberry plants being studied by biological sciences faculty member Tia-Lynn Ashman, who is researching the factors that influence the plants’ gender. (They come in male, female and hermaphrodite.)

A self-described “science nerd,” York enjoys her role supporting Pitt’s research botanists. She works closely with the University’s five full-time botany professors and the student researchers in their labs. In addition, she is the instructor for several sections of Pitt’s botany-oriented Foundations of Biology 0050 lab.

There’s no such thing as a typical day. “I can come in thinking in the morning, ‘All I have to do is water the plants,’” but then she finds herself pulled in a hundred other directions. “None of it to me is boring,” she said.

While some of the work involves getting her hands dirty, her job entails much more than physical labor. In addition to caring for the plants, York choreographs the plant traffic in the greenhouse, where growing space is reserved at least through 2010. “It’s hard to find any space,” she said, noting that the greenhouses rarely are empty, and when they are it’s typically not for more than a day or two.

She’s on call 24 hours a day should something go wrong in the greenhouses. Alarms alert her if temperatures in the growth chambers reach levels that could harm the plants. Lately, that’s been rare, although York recalls a time when she frequently was roused in the middle of the night to investigate problems.

Temperature extremes aren’t her sole worry. When pests threaten the plants, York is the one to investigate and suggest solutions. In collaboration with the researchers, she might find herself calling a supplier for a biological solution — thousands of ladybugs or lacewings or parasitic mites to rid plants of pests in a non-chemical way. Or, when chemicals are necessary, finding the right one is part of her job as well.

She’s responsible for safeguarding the experiments from contamination. Visitors are instructed not to wear bright blue or yellow — the colors are attractive to plant pests that could hitch a ride into the greenhouse on brightly colored clothing. And there are strict rules against traveling directly from one greenhouse bay to the next.

Instead, each bay has its own entry door accessible via an outdoor boardwalk that stretches alongside the greenhouse.

Visitors can look, but not touch the plants — not just for the sake of the research, but also in case the plants have been treated with pesticides.

All lab workers must undergo chemical training, as well as a training session with York on the greenhouse protocols.

In addition to having her own student assistants, York works with undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and enjoys her ability to consult in several researchers’ labs.

York says her favorite spot is the Clapp Hall greenhouse that supplies a variety of plant specimens she uses in her lab sections. The 500-square-foot greenhouse is home to a variety of plants ranging from familiar to exotic. Basil, tomatoes and begonias co-exist with orchids and carnivorous Venus flytraps.

“I like to have plants on hand that are of economic interest or that students might find attractive to spark their interest,” she said. She especially likes to expose students to a variety of unusual plants — ginger, water chestnut or patchouli plants, or the exotic welwitschia mirabilis, an African desert plant that grows two long spiraling ribbon-like leaves and can live for thousands of years.

York enjoys the diversity of the collection and the constant chance to observe the plants in action — something always is blooming or in transition there, she said.

And, it’s not just the green leafy things that grow. York says she delights in watching her students make the transition from scared, lost freshmen to confident, educated individuals as they progress at Pitt.

She notes that student observations “sometimes become PhD research,” adding that students’ ideas are encouraged.

“There’s no hierarchy here at all as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “They come here with their gifts. Their gifts will be used if they’re willing to deploy them. My greatest resource is the students I work with, and the faculty.”

York considers hers to be a privileged position. “ I love working with the students. I love the research. This is the edge of the world. … Finding out the things that were not known before,” she said.

“This is science. That’s what I wanted to do.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 1

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