Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Karl Niklas, plant science.

November 20, 2018

‘Phenomenally Creative’ Plant Biology Professor to Retire After 30 Years at Cornell

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After over 30 years at Cornell University, Prof. Karl Niklas, plant biology, is set to retire from teaching at the end of the fall semester. Niklas’ time in the classroom left a lasting impression on numerous students and faculty, who spoke at length about his contributions to academia and personal charm.

Niklas arrived at the University in August of 1978 to take over from the late Prof. Harlan Banks, a distinguished paleobotanist. During the past 30 years, Niklas has published five books and has written over 380 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Prof. William Crepet, former chair of the plant sciences department, taught with Niklas from 1991 to 2001. Crepet called Niklas a “pioneer” in the field of plant biomechanics, a specialty area that utilizes Niklas’s expertise in mathematics.

“He’s unique. It’d be hard to find another Karl Niklas. His balance as a phenomenally creative scientist, a phenomenally productive scientist — he’s an excellent writer, he’s very fast on his feet,” Crepet said. “His dedication to Cornell was fabulous — he loves the University, he loves his students. You know he’s one of these guys that’s known as a legendary professor. It’d be very hard to find another one.”

Niklas has devoted ample time to teaching, research and publishing books and academic papers. In a phone call with The Sun, Niklas said teaching has been “one of my greatest joys” and that he will “miss teaching very much.”

Former students of Niklas were also eager to recall their time with the professor, who they characterized as not only a knowledgeable scholar but also a caring mentor to students.

“Even though I was struggling a little bit in the class … I was just having fun every single day of class. He always made it entertaining,” said Kady Maser ’18, who took Niklas’s introductory plant biology class during her first year at Cornell.

Maser also said that Niklas “cared about you as a person even if you weren’t doing well in his class,” a sentiment echoed by Patricia Chan ’18.

“Dr. Niklas cares immensely about his students in and out of the classroom,” Chan said. “His mentorship and guidance have played a large role in my undergraduate education and in the realization of my future career.”

Michael Long ’01 gave a particularly vivid account of his classroom style and even provided a diagram of his unique ambidextrous drawing style — using both hands simultaneously to sculpt detailed chalk impressions of plant physiology.

“His lectures are theatre infused with a unique balance of a paleobotanist’s sagacity and a mathematician’s attention for detail,” Long said. “For a professor to be able to teach about these ugly plants and make them seem like the coolest thing ever, well, that is genius — which is probably a good word to describe him.”

Niklas’s illustrations are a hobby as well as a professional asset. All of his books were self-illustrated, Niklas told The Sun. In his free time, Niklas also likes to play the cello and plant vegetables and ornamentals in his garden, pastimes that he joked would keep him “just as busy” in retirement.

After retiring, Niklas said he hopes to keep researching, although “over 70, the energy level isn’t what it used to be,” he joked. Niklas also hopes to travel and give talks and lectures in other parts of the world, he told The Sun.

Many of the students that spoke of Niklas’s time at Cornell were bittersweet about his plans to leave, but spoke of his lasting impression on the University and his pupils.

“Dr. Niklas’s legacy lives on in the countless students he’s mentored and taught.  Whether his students went on to pursue research in plant evolution or a career in finance, he at the very least inspired an appreciation and curiosity of the plants around us. Needless to say, he will be missed,” Chan said.

Matthew McGowen ’19 contributed reporting to this story.