Nishanta "Nishi" Rajakaruna

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Contacts & Bio

Nishanta Rajakaruna

Professor, Plant Biology

Biological Sciences Department

California Polytechnic State University

One Grand Avenue

San Luis Obispo, CA 93407


Office: 33-367; Lab: 33-355 A
Phone: 805.756.2836
Fax: 805.756.1419

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From 2010-2016, I served as the Professor of Botany at College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine.  During the 2016-2017 academic year, I was a Fulbright Scholar at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka. In August 2017, I joined the Biological Sciences Department, California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo, CA) as an Associate Professor in Plant Biology and was promoted to Full Professor starting September 2021. My primary research interest is in understanding the role extreme edaphic (soil) conditions play in generating and maintaining plant diversity. I have taught a range of botany courses over my 18 years of teaching at the undergraduate level, including Introductory Plant Biology, Edible Botany, Ethnobotany, Field Botany, Trees and Shrubs of Mount Desert Island, Plant Taxonomy, Plant Systematics, and Plant Evolutionary Processes, and other biology courses such as Form and Function and Biogeography.

I am originally from Sri Lanka and fell in love with plants fairly early in my life during a visit to Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja Rainforest. I pursued my passion for plants under the supervision of the late Dr. Craig Greene, beloved botanist of COA. During my studies at COA I was able to return to the Sinharaja Rainforest and work for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as a field coordinator in establishing the first, long-term forest dynamics plot in the rainforest. Upon graduation I worked as a research assistant for the late Dr. Fakhri Bazzaz at the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University. In 1995 I joined the Department of Botany, The University of British Columbia and received a M.Sc (1998) and a Ph.D. (2002) for my work on the evolutionary ecology of the Californian endemic annual plant Lasthenia californica (common goldfields of the sunflower family). My graduate research was supervised by Drs. Bruce BohmJeannette Whitton, and Tony Glass.  I joined the laboratory of Dr. David Ackerly, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University (currently, at UC Berkeley) as a NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada) postdoctoral fellow in 2003. My research focused on understanding community assembly patterns on serpentine chaparral in California. I have carried out research on serpentine soil-plant relations in California while holding an Adjunct Associate Professor position at San José State University (2010-2017) and, starting Fall 2017, as an Associate Professor of Plant Biology at California Polytechnic State University. I also hold an adjunct Research Professor position (Extraordinary Professor, 2014-onward) at the Unit of Environmental Sciences and Management, North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa and supervise undergraduate and graduate student research on plants of serpentine and other metal-rich soils.

As faculty member in botany at COA (2004-2008; 2010-2016), I supervised senior projects and independent studies on bryophytes, lichens, and higher plants growing on extreme substrates in Maine, leading to numerous undergraduate student-authored, peer-reviewed publications. I continue to carry out research with undergraduate and Master’s students at Cal Poly and publish student-led research. I am the co-editor of two key treatments on plant life on serpentine soils [Serpentine: Evolution and Ecology in a Model System (2011, UC Press) and Soil and Biota of Serpentine: A World View (2009, Humboldt Field Research Institute/Allen Press)] and a book titled Plant Ecology and Evolution in Harsh Environments (2014, Nova Science Publishers).

I was the Faculty-in-Residence at the yakʔitʸutʸu Residential Community, Cal Poly University Housing from Fall 2018-Spring 2022. I am currently at North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa on my sabbatical as a Fulbright US Scholar (July 2022-June 2023).

My extra-curricular interests include hiking/walking,  badminton, running, and cricket, although injuries have prevented me from doing much badminton, running or cricket lately. I have recently fallen in love with birds and photography and spend much of my free time photographing birds and sharing my photos on Facebook. I also enjoy travel, especially opportunities to explore good food and drinks from all corners of the world.

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