Sandra Knapp PhD ’86 on the grounds of the Natural History Museum in London

Plant lover and Earth advocate

When Sandra Knapp PhD ’86 started her undergraduate career at Pomona College in Claremont, California, she was set on taking a course in marine science. Having grown up in the desert in rural New Mexico, the ocean held great allure for Sandy. But when she was not able to get in because the course was full, she chose field botany instead. As part of her field botany fieldwork, she and her classmates headed into the desert with microscopes, to take a closer look at plants.

“This was it!” she says. She recalls being filled with wonder as she discovered and observed different plants. This sense of wonder has stuck with her over the course of nearly five decades, leading Sandy to explore ecosystems around the globe and describe more than 100 new species of plants. In April, Sandy received the 2022 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration from the National Tropical Botanical Garden, in recognition of her remarkable career in plant discovery and conservation.

Sandy says she can recall many of the plants she’s seen and the places she’s been in her mind’s eye. “I remember most plants I’ve ever collected like they were my friends,” she says. What she loves about her work is the opportunity to see something new. As a scientist, Sandy gets to experience this on a daily basis. “The best part of my work is also the best part of life—finding something you hadn’t noticed before,” she says.

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