Lifelong Friendship With Arboretum Founder Inspires Donation

Dr. Rani Vajravelu

A passion for plants is at the root of a recent donation made by Biology faculty member Rani Vajravelu, Ph.D. The donation is made out to the UCF Arboretum in aim of supporting students that are passionate about outdoor plant studies.

“I would love the money to help alleviate financial stress on students looking to pursue plant sciences so that they are able to focus on their studies,“ said Vajravelu. “It would be nice to see some of the lost trees replanted in the Arboretum areas, too.”

Dr. Vajravelu and Dr. Hank Whittier

Vajravelu points to her relationship with the late Hank Whittier, Ph.D., as an indirect source of inspiration in donating. The two met over 20 years ago, when Vajravelu first came to Orlando after her husband had landed a job on UCF faculty.

“When I first came to know Dr. Whittier as a student of his, I was interested in his passion for maintaining an Arboretum in a University that did not have a separate botany department. One of his goals was using the Arboretum as an outdoor teaching lab,” said Vajravelu.

Even though Vajravelu already possessed her doctorate degree in plant taxonomy, she was so drawn to the study of plants that she signed up to take Whittier’s class titled “Local Flora.” Neither knew that this was the beginning to a lifelong friendship in academia and in life.

“After Dr. Whitter realized I had my degree, we began to collaborate using our mutual knowledge,” said Vajravelu. “We bounced ideas off each other and filled gaps of knowledge by working together. He was a great mentor as I pursued obtaining grants from the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. I always felt respected and honored.”

Since then, Vajravelu has joined UCF as a teaching faculty in the Biology department and published works of botanical interest— one of which was a textbook on ethnobotany, a subject taught by Whittier until he retired from UCF. The proceeds from her books are the source of the donation funding.

“I am so glad to do this,” said Vajravelu. “I hope the money goes to someone that helps foster the same passion for the Arboretum as Dr. Whittier had.”


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