S.H. ("Sy") Sohmer has been named director of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, effective Jan. 29. Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is part of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, or CALS, and is managed in cooperation with Arizona State Parks and Trails and the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum, Inc.
Sohmer brings to CALS more than 40 years of experience as a research botanist, university professor, federal employee and nonprofit CEO. He spent the last two years as a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution and is a faculty affiliate at George Mason University. As director of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas from 1993 to 2014, he grew the organization from a three-person staff with an annual budget of $175,000 and approximately 400,000 herbarium specimens to a world-class organization housed in a 69,000-square-foot LEED Platinum building with a staff of 32, an annual budget of about $3 million and a collection of more than 1 million specimens. Sohmer presided over the creation of the institute's endowment, which stood at about $50 million at the time of his departure.
"Dr. Sohmer has exceptional experience at the intersection of leadership, education, research, public service, fundraising and botany," said Shane C. Burgess, vice president for agriculture, life and veterinary sciences, and Cooperative Extension. "He will engage diverse stakeholders to foster a bright future for Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, both in terms of the biological collection itself and the people — staff, volunteers and visitors — who make it such a special place."
"Dr. Sohmer is highly engaged, has great energy and vision," Burgess said. "Our shared aspiration is that Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park share the international stage with the other world-class collections and that it transform our teaching and research."
After earning his Ph.D. in botany from the University of Hawaii, Sohmer began his career with the Department of Biology at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, where he created the university’s herbarium. He served in 1977-1978 as staff associate in charge of the Tropical Biology Initiative at the National Science Foundation and, in 1979, as forest botanist with the then-Office of Forests, Department of Primary Industry, Papua New Guinea.
While assistant director for research and chairman of the botany department of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu from 1980-1990, Sohmer catalyzed a number of major programs, including the Flora of the Philippines Project, and he initiated and led the National Geographic Society-supported Hunstein River Expedition in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea in 1989. Sohmer organized the New Caledonia Terrestrial Biodiversity Task Force of the Pacific Science Association in 1990, and he conceptualized and organized the Marquesas Expedition in 1988-1989.
The Flora of Hawaii Project, which Sohmer catalyzed and for which he acquired the requisite funding, culminated in the publication of "The Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawai'i" in 1990, which was recognized as the world's best botanical publication of its kind in the 20th century. Sohmer and his co-authors received the Engler Medal in Silver for this work at the 1993 International Botanical Congress; he was one of only seven botanists at the time ever to have received this honor. From 1990-1993, Sohmer was the senior biodiversity adviser for the Agency for International Development.
"We are very excited about the future of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park," said Sue Black, executive director of Arizona State Parks and Trails. "Under the leadership of Dr. Sohmer, there will be a renewed focus on positioning the arboretum as a premier destination for Arizonans and visitors."
"We are indeed fortunate to have attracted a new director with the impressive qualifications Dr. Sohmer brings to our arboretum," said Ian Thompson, president of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park board of directors. "His academic credentials are very strong, and he brings with him a wealth of relevant experience as well as a track record that is second to none."
Sohmer was chairman of the Botany Committee of the Pacific Science Association for 13 years, played a leading role in organizing the science programs of three Pacific Science Congresses and serves as treasurer for the Society for Economic Botany. He was given the Freedom of the City of London in 2006 and was admitted into the Livery of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners in 2007. He is a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. He has published or edited some 80 articles and books, organized more than 20 major symposia and workshops, and given numerous papers and talks.
"With its vast collection of arid land plants, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park will serve as an extraordinary resource for our School of Plant Sciences," said Karen Schumaker, director of the school. "The biological diversity in the gardens will underpin explorations of plant-environment (abiotic and biotic) interactions in arid environments.
"Access to the collections will enable us to promote student engagement through research experiences and internships. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to take advantage of Dr. Sohmer's experience and expertise managing collections and understanding biological diversity to explore research and educational opportunities," Schumaker added.
"I am excited to work with Dr. Sohmer," said Shelley McMahon, associate research professor and adviser for research and educational engagement with Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park. “With his experience in natural history collections and national science museums, he is uniquely prepared to guide the arboretum toward new synergies with the UA and other stakeholders."
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Arizona's oldest and largest botanical garden, is cooperatively managed by the nonprofit 501(3)(c) Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum Inc., the University of Arizona, and Arizona State Parks and Trails. The 392-acre facility has nearly three miles of paths and trails that pass through plant exhibits from 11 of the world's deserts, a native riparian habitat and colorful specialty gardens. Founded in 1924, the purpose of the arboretum is to instill an appreciation of desert plants through the fostering of educational, recreational, research and conservation opportunities.
The garden is located 100 miles north of Tucson and 45 miles east of Mesa, on U.S. Highway 60, three miles west of the historic copper mining town of Superior.