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Biology 20 Professor Discusses His Passion for Flora, Music

By Nanaho Sawano, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

Upon entering the office of Professor of Biology Michael J. Donoghue, the visitor might notice a small, brass plaque on his door. The plaque reads "Michael Mad Dog Donoghue."

Donoghue, who co-teaches Biology 20: "Biological Diversity," is the director of the Harvard Herberia and conducts research, says he leads a hectic life.

"My daily life is completely nuts. I'm like a ping-pong ball. There isn't much structure," Donoghue says of his life as director of the Harvard Herbaria dealing with administrative issues, as well as teaching and researching the evolution and diversity of plants.

But Donoghue says he has no problem with his chaotic life.

"Some scientists do one problem," Donoghue says. "My thing is to do a lot of them. I do all sorts of problems--theoretical, molecular, fungal. The bottom line is that I like it that way, I like to do a lot of things at the same time." For instance, part of his work includes a great deal of travelling, which Donoghue says that he enjoys.

"I just came back from Crete three weeks ago," Donoghue says. "This summer, we're going to Tibet. Last summer, we went to Sichuan.... As a graduate student, for my dissertation I collected in Mexico and Central America. That's what I'd like to do more of in the summer, go on expeditions to collect plants."

According to a Rick Ree, a graduate student who works with Donoghue, the professor's best-known work is on the study of "patterns and processes of evolution."

"One riddle I'm most involved in is the question of the origin of flowering plants, which is almost everything you see except for pine trees," Donoghue says, adding that the fossil record of flowering plants was somewhat "mysterious."

Donoghue, who studies modern-day plants to sudy their relationship, also says he is intrigued by the biogeography of the genus Viburnum, on which he is the world's expert.

"...Viburnum...includes about 200 species around the northern hemisphere," Donoghue says. The genus includes shrubs and small trees that are commonly cultivated. "Why is it that some areas are so rich in Viburnum?" Donoghue asks.

Donoghue has worked on the question in a variety of ways--studying the morphological character of the plants and reconstructing phylogeny based on gene sequences.

Donoghue says that he is also very proud to be associated with the Harvard Herbaria, a vast collection of dried plant specimens.

"It's a repository, a museum, which contains our the actual knowledge of plant diversity and where they live," Donoghue says.

According to Donoghue, the Harvard Herbaria is the eighth largest herbarium in the world and the largest herbarium associated with a university.

But despite his involvement in the Herbaria now, Donoghue says that there was nothing in his itinerant childhood that might have predicted his love for the Herbarium and the achievements in botany that it represents.

Donoghue was born in Chicago 1952. But since his father was a cultural anthropologist who completed his Ph.D dissertation in Japan and got a teaching position in Sendai, Donoghue's earliest memories involve "speaking Japanese and going to a Japanese kindergarten, and lots of snow [in northern Japan]."

His next memories then switch to Saigon, Vietnam, to which his family moved when he was a second-grader.

"Tropical climates, tropical fruits and lizards on the wall...it was a real switch from Japan." Donoghue recalls. Faced with the Vietnam War, however, his family did not stay in Saigon long.

"Things were starting to heat up," Donoghue says. "We sometimes heard gunfire at night."

After two years, his family was evacuated out of Vietnam back to the U.S., where his father held a series of positions in a number of states.

Throughout his childhood, Donoghue says that he did not have his mind on science.

"My main thing was rejecting authority in every way I could," he says. "I had zero interest in science. I got out of every science class I could, there was nothing that could predict my becoming a scientist. I rejected academia, I rejected everything. I mean, it was the '60s. When I graduated from high school, I swore up and down that I would never go to college--so, I always felt it was ironic that I ended up in science."

Donoghue eventually did go to college, but not for two years, during which he travelled around North America doing odd jobs on the way. According to Donoghue, it was during his travels that he first became interested in plants.

"I got interested in plants and evolution before college, when I was bumming around, hiking and reading," Donoghue says. "I read Darwin's Origin--that really influenced me. I'd take a walk in the woods, and there'd be so many things. I guess what interested me is, why this diversity? Why so many different kinds of plants?"

And even when he returned to college, Donoghue says he "had no intention of getting a degree."

"I just kind of got sucked in." he says.

Donoghue graduated from Michigan State University in 1976 and went on to be a graduate student at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D in biology in 1982. After stints at San Diego University and the University of Arizona, Donoghue returned as a tenured professor to Harvard in 1993. He became director of the Herbaria in 1995.

At Harvard, Donoghue says that in Biology 20, which he teaches with Professor of Biology Andrew H. Knoll, he is committed to spreading knowledge about biological diversity and the threat human impact poses to it.

"We have about 80 students a year. We do a survey of major events in the history of life, overall diversity, global patterns of diversity and conservation issues.... It's almost the year 2000 and the bottom line is, we really don't know much about diversity."

Outside of the classroom, Donoghue says he enjoys performing in a band.

"From early on in life, I was interested in music. In high school, I got into old time music, which is Southern Appalachian string band music....it's a precursor of bluegrass music, involving the banjo and the fiddle."

"One of the things I like about Boston, is that I can carry on with my music. We put out a CD last year, called The Leavins." Donoghue says, who still plays the banjo in an old time string band, and happily showed a picture of his band members. "We play around in bars and stuff," he said. "Mad Dog," it appears, is his band name.

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