Dr. Tasneem Khaleel

professor, botany and biology
Billings, MT


October 9, 2015

By Cassie Winter, University Relations and Communications


Dr. Khaleel with some of her cataloged specimensTell me about your education?

My Ph.D is from India, at Bangalore University and I was the first woman to get a Ph.D from that university. I started education at a very young age because I started school when I was about 3. In those days there was not an age limit to start school, when your parents felt you were ready they took you to school. From then on it was up to you. When I started off, there was no kindergarten or pre-school, it was first grade. I sat on the teacher’s lap most of the time because I was so little.

Why did you study botany?

When I was a student in India, botany was a man’s field. They did not really take women in graduate courses for botany because they look at botany as a field science. Since the graduate seats were so limited they didn’t take a whole lot of graduate students. They thought if they took in a girl student, the only option for her would be to teach botany, not go out to the field.  They still looked at women in those days as better at home and in the classroom than in the field. That was a challenge for me. I just wanted to prove to them one could be in the field as well.

When did you know you wanted to become an educator?

Oh I loved teaching right from the beginning. One of the reasons you do your masters in any discipline in India was so that you can teach in college. When I graduated with my masters degree in botany, I was 19 years old at the time and so I went off to find a job. There was one person who was in charge of recruiting and allocating all of the lecturer positions. So I talked to him and said, I need a job but he took one look at me and said, you look like you just came out of high school. He didn’t think I would be impressive enough in front of a classroom and to be able to control a classroom, the kids wouldn’t take me seriously. So I sat there and cried, I wanted the job and he refused to give me something that I had a passion to teach. I didn’t want to keep all the knowledge to myself. So then he said how about if you went and did a Ph.D. and then came back a few years later and by then you will have grown up a bit. I took him up on that option but there was no Ph.D. program at the university so he said he would help start one, which he did. And then we got the university grant fellowship to support me and I did my Ph.D. By then I wasn’t interested in going to him anymore to teach because people were after me to come and teach being I was the first woman with a Ph.D. there.

Tell us about your passion, building the herbarium at MSUB?

The value of the herbarium is based on what plant collections you have in it. When I first came here there were just two wooden cabinets here, with maybe 500 specimens. And they said, this is your herbarium. It was shocking because where I came from there is a whole building dedicated to the herbarium. So I challenged myself to build a herbarium here.  The very first grant I wrote was to buy herbarium cabinets. The next step I did was to call out to local agents here who had small collections to see if they were willing to consolidate to a central location. The US Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Land Management and Rocky Mountain College were all very willing to give collections and we incorporated those in our herbarium. Over the years, the herbarium is a part of the national database with about 16,000 specimens.

Of the classes you teach, what is your favorite?

All of my classes are my favorite classes. I love teaching. I teach freshman biology, in fact that’s one of my most favorite classes to be honest. That’s when students are first starting out and I’m introducing them to biology for the first time and to get them excited about that. I really enjoy doing that and it gives me opportunities to mentor students because they’re just starting out. My second most favorite is plant systematics, they are both equally enjoyable classes for me. I just love teaching botany.