Meet Martha Elisabeth Black, a working mother who turned her passion for horticulture fanned by her volunteering as a Rutgers Master Gardener for Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County into a career in horticultural therapy. A G.H. Cook Scholar, Black was inducted in the Matthew Leydt Society and Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society. The Leydt Society recognizes graduating seniors for exceptional academic performance at Rutgers–New Brunswick. Alpha Sigma Lambda is a national honor society for adult learners representing the top non-traditional students for more than 300 institutions across the U.S.
We congratulate Martha Elisabeth Black, SEBS Class of 2019 and Plant Science major, who shared a little about herself, in her own words, with the SEBS/NJAES Newsroom.
What drew you to enroll at SEBS? Why did you choose the major you did?
I lead a team of Master Gardeners who work with Special Needs Students at the local high school. We have worked with them weekly from March to November for six years to help the students tend to two memorial flower gardens and a vegetable garden. Part of our mission is to help these young people gain life skills and vocational skills so that they can achieve meaningful employment at one of the local garden centers, with the goal of eventually living independently.
While working with this team in one of my first visits, I was helping a young woman who is on the Autism Spectrum plant basil. I was teaching her how to plant a seedling. She watched and then repeated the motions. After the first plant, she started on the second one; by the third one, she was humming and singing. After that experience, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t learn that Horticultural Therapy was a thing people paid you to do until about a year later. Then I discovered I could get a degree in it from Rutgers.
My major is Plant Science, with a specialization in Horticultural Therapy. Before I enrolled, I reached out to professors Joel Flagler and Donald Kobayashi of the Department of Plant Biology. Both of them gave me excellent advice which has been very helpful in my studies.
Tell us some more about your career as a teacher.
I am the Horticulture Instructor at New Road School in Somerset. New Road is a high school for students who have special needs. Early last year, New Road approached Professor Flagler to fill a position for a Horticulture Instructor. He announced this job opening in class in February. I knew as he was describing the position that was my dream job. I became the Horticulture Instructor in April 2018.
In this role I do a lot of the same activities I do as a Master Gardener. I teach the students Vocational Skills so that they can secure employment after they graduate. I love New Road and the students. Many people believe that people who have disabilities have very little to offer. But every single day that I teach, I learn something from my students.
I am assuming you have fulltime/part-time work demands, how do you balance study/work/family life?
I have four children, and two of them – 13 and 17 years old – still live at home. They have been homeschooled for the past five years. My 17-year-old is going to college in the Fall. My husband also took a job in Boston last fall and he’s away from home Mondays through Fridays since October. So being busy is an understatement.
It has been a struggle to manage to give them the time and attention they need. I am quite aggressive in managing my time. Before this year I was only taking 9 credits a semester and 6-9 credits in the summer. But I needed to finish this year, so I took a full course load this year. It’s been very challenging to do this while working three days a week plus homeschooling.
I rely a lot on my friends. My daughter goes to her best friend’s house to do her studies two days a week, her mom makes sure she’s working and not Youtubing. My son drives her to her activities when I’m teaching or in class. Sometimes my friends will drop her off or pick her up from something.
During my educational journey my husband built me a “She Shed.” It has been a lifesaver. It is part potting shed, part study nook, and all sanctuary. I practically live there during finals. I have had to become extremely organized. I lay out my daughter’s curriculum during summer and winter break, and I grade her work on the weekends.
I am also fiercely protective of my schedule. Every family member enters their appointments, rehearsals, meetings and shows/recitals on a shared Apple calendar. I manage that calendar to the minute.
What, if anything, from your SEBS experience, have you been able to impart to your classroom?
I have used so much that I’ve learned. We have air-layered plants and grafted tomato plants after lessons in Dr. Tom Molnar’s class. I use Horticulture Therapy Techniques I learned in Professor Joel Flagler’s classes almost every day. What I learned in Dr. Gould’s Plant Pathology classes is definitely used every day. And some of the slides from Professor Buckley have helped me identify pests in the school greenhouse.
As a G.H. Cook Scholar, what is your research about? How did you become interested in it?
My research is identifying the optimum harvest date for hops to maximize alpha and beta acids. I knew nothing about hops before I began my GHC Scholars project. I wanted to do agricultural research to make sure I was choosing the right career. I have really enjoyed my time at Rutgers, and I wondered if I wanted to continue in Plant Science.
I did enjoy researching hops and I learned a lot, which will help me as I plan to enter a Psychology graduate program and eventually conduct research that will support Horticultural Therapy. Most of the research for Horticultural Therapy is being completed in Japan and Korea, while almost none of the research originates from the United States. In many of my Horticultural Therapy classes, it was stressed how important research and evidence is to a relatively new field like Horticultural Therapy. And yet, studies are not being conducted.
Many Horticultural Therapists (and aspiring HTR) are more focused on therapy than on the horticulture. There is a strong focus on helping people and but less on scientific research. If I hadn’t stepped out of my “requirements” to do voluntary research for the George Cook Scholars Program, I might not have considered research as something I could do either.
How would you generally describe your time at SEBS, and what, if anything, did you find most surprising?
I do not represent the traditional student demographic but the university and professors, in particular, helped to ensure that I was supported even when issues arise from my busy lifestyle. I have loved my time at SEBS. The professors I have encountered have been excellent and very knowledgeable. The Living Wall in the INFH Building makes my Facebook page regularly, especially in January when it’s so dreary outside.