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Barbara Pickard, Plant Mechanosensory Researcher, Dies

The mechanobiologist at Washington University in St. Louis studied how plants sense their environment.

Emily Makowski
Jan 13, 2020

ABOVE: MCKELVEY SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AT WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

Barbara Pickard, a plant mechanobiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, died December 6 after complications following hip surgery, according to a statement from the Center for Engineering MechanoBiology. She was 83 years old.

Pickard was known for her work on plant sensory physiology, especially on plant electrical responses to hormones, proteins, and external stressors, according to the Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB). In 1988, she was part of a team that identified the first stretch-activated ion channels in plant cells, which help maintain water content. Several years later, she was also among the first researchers to describe mechanosensory calcium?selective cation channels, which detect mechanical stress along with electrical, chemical, and thermal stimuli. Her more recent research demonstrated that antennae-like hairs on sprouts of Arabidopsis thaliana are mechanosensors that may respond to vibrations caused by caterpillars chewing on the plant’s leaves. 

Pickard was born Barbara Gillespie on February 24, 1936. She began studying plants as a master’s research assistant at Stanford University. She earned a PhD from Harvard University in 1963, and became a professor at Washington University in St. Louis in 1966, where she remained for more than five decades until her death. She became a professor emerita in recent years after beating a terminal cancer diagnosis, and continued to teach graduate mechanobiology lectures until 2018. Also, she was involved with environmental causes and community action groups, according to CEMB. 

“Dr. Pickard’s deep passion for plant science and the environment was evident from her extensive network of collaborators and friends, and through the many venues she created to enable colleagues to discuss science. She enthusiastically engaged the next generation of scientists through mentorship, teaching, and outreach,” says the CEMB statement.

“Barbara was a singular individual, like no one I’ve ever met. She was a biological philosopher who put her intuition and years of expertise on equal footing with data and hypothesis testing,” says Elizabeth Haswell, a plant mechanotransduction researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and colleague of Pickard, in a tweet. “She was a pioneer in so many ways.”

Pickard is survived by her husband, two children, a grandson, and two brothers.

See “Plant Neurobiology Sprouts Anew

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.

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