Catherine Thomas grew up in a small town in Montana and was studying ornamental horticulture at Montana State University when a summer internship lured her to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, in 1991. “I thought the Chicago area would be an exciting place to live,” says Thomas, who discovered that her new workplace provided the ultimate excitement. Thomas stayed on at the garden, working her way up a trellis of increasingly challenging positions. Today she is the garden’s plant propagator, in charge of coaxing seeds and plants to reproduce and adapt to their environments.
“Once I realized I was going to stay here, I decided to complete my degree,” says Thomas. She took one or two classes at a time at SPS to accommodate full-time work and a personal life. “My marriage took place while I was at SPS, and my daughter was born the year I graduated,” says Thomas, who graduated in 2001 and now has two children. “When you’re working and going to school, you learn to prioritize.”
At SPS Thomas took elective courses in subjects such as music and English literature, and she discovered a range of disciplines rolled into her chosen major in environmental studies. “We looked at how philosophy, sociology, geography and geology relate to the environment,” says Thomas. The knowledge she gained has helped her in her work, says Thomas: “We may need to treat seeds before they’ll grow, giving cold treatments to prairie plants or acid treatments to seeds that might pass through a bird’s stomach. We look to nature.”