Forestry scientist John Seiler reappointed as Alumni Distinguished Professor
John R. Seiler, The Hon. and Mrs. Shelton H. Short Jr. Professor of Forestry in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been recognized as an embodiment of Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission through his recent reappointment as Alumni Distinguished Professor.
Faculty members receiving this decade-long appointment are members of the university academic community who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishments and academic citizenship through substantive scholarly contributions in teaching, research, and engagement.
“John Seiler is the embodiment of a teaching scholar,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “His quest for excellence in everything he does touches all parts of our land grant mission each and every day, from the classroom to research and graduate education to his service to the public. John is a devoted teacher-mentor, an inquisitive and competitive research scholar, and has a zeal for bringing knowledge of trees and forests to the public.”
To students, alumni, and the public, Seiler is affectionately known as “Dr. Dendro” (dendrology is the scientific study of trees). Being appointed Alumni Distinguished Professor for the second time is an honor that comes soon after Seiler was chosen to deliver the keynote address for Virginia Tech’s fall 2019 commencement.
Although the professor indicated that speaking at commencement was “possibly the highlight of my teaching career,” he has accumulated many other accomplishments and touched the academic lives of countless individuals throughout his career at Virginia Tech.
As a researcher, Seiler has been studying trees for more than 40 years. He is an expert in tree ecophysiology, focusing on the physiological processes that allow trees to manage environmental factors and stressors such as water and pollutants, and has authored more than 115 refereed articles.
One of his largest research initiatives has been the Pine Integrated Network: Education, Mitigation, and Adaptation Project (PINEMAP). The project focused on 20 million acres of planted pine forests from Virginia to Texas, helping southern pine landowners manage forests to increase carbon sequestration, increase efficiency of nitrogen and other fertilizer inputs, and adapt forest management approaches to increase forest resilience and sustainability under variable climates.
Seiler was one of an unprecedented team of 50 scientists, educators, and extension professionals who worked on the project, and the only scientist to serve as a principal investigator for two of the six disciplinary groups: silviculture and ecophysiology, as well as education.
As co-lead of the education group, Seiler was responsible for creating the PINEMAP Undergraduate Fellowship Program. In addition to a summer research experience, program participants learned how to effectively communicate science, developing and delivering presentations in their home states that ultimately reached 95 schools, 138 teachers, and 7,423 public school students.
The combination of research, teaching, and outreach Seiler spearheaded and implemented in the PINEMAP project has been a distinguishing feature of his ongoing work in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.
In addition to his research activities, Seiler has taught a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses. He also serves as a frequent mentor and advisor for graduate students, completing nine master’s and seven doctoral students in the past 10 years.
According to Department Chair Jay Sullivan, it is Seiler’s “passion and dedication to students and to teaching that stands out” among his many contributions. “John has educated a generation of students in dendrology and forest biology, and even though his dendrology lab is known as the toughest one-credit course on campus, he is beloved by his students — who can’t miss knowing that he cares.”
Seiler’s long list of teaching awards at the college, university, state, national, and international levels attests to his excellence inside and outside of the classroom. Honors extend across his career and include the College of Natural Resources and Environment Outstanding Undergraduate Student Mentor Award (2020) and the university’s William E. Wine Award for Excellence in Teaching (1997).
On a broader scale, he has earned the Virginia State Council for Higher Education Outstanding Faculty Award (2002), the Society of American Foresters Carl Alvin Schenck Award for Outstanding Performance in Forestry Education (1998), and the Ernest L. Boyer International Award for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Technology (2004).
Seiler has also excelled in the digital space, leading a team in developing tools to assist students of all ages around the world with tree identification.
The free vTree app he co-developed has become one of the most widely downloaded tree identification tools on the market. To his knowledge, it is the only app that filters plants specifically to the user’s area and elevation.
It’s also the only app that allows users to ask a question and get an answer by sending an email and photo directly to Dr. Dendro. Seiler personally answers all tree identification queries, an estimated five to 10 emails a day. That’s an average of 2,738 questions a year since its release in 2012.
Although no one foresaw the instructional challenges that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, Seiler was already working in the online space to help students in his tree identification labs. Through a series of walking “tours” using the app Ramblr, students can now navigate to a tree using their smartphone and watch a video of their professor teaching about the tree. In addition, users can see close-up images of key distinguishing features for each tree.
The videos used in the app are available on the VT Dendrology YouTube channel and became particularly valuable with the shift to online instruction in spring 2020.
Seiler has also made his mark on the college and university through service. In addition to serving on numerous committees and providing talks and presentations to alumni, community, and school groups, he has been an advocate for the recruitment and support of underrepresented populations.
Seiler assists with implementation of the Our Next Generation Scholars program and serves as department lead for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence Program, both of which aim to increase the success of women and other underrepresented groups in forest management.
When asked to reflect on his time at the university, Seiler said, “Nearly 40 years ago when I arrived at Virginia Tech as a Ph.D. student, I never thought I would spend my career here. I have been blessed and very fortunate to be a part of making CNRE the number one program in the nation. I have constantly been surrounded by a great team of people.”
It is the people and his contact with students that Seiler continues to cherish in these extraordinary times: “Even with the reduced class sizes and faces covered in masks, it was GREAT to be back in the classroom in person, starting our semester.”
Seiler earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Pennsylvania State University and his doctorate from Virginia Tech. Aside from a two-year stint as a graduate research assistant at Penn State, Seiler has spent his entire career teaching students and educating communities as a Hokie.