College of Agriculture Dean Karen Plaut with Shelby Cummings

New dean takes the reins

Few children receive birthday gifts they remember as adults, much less ones that forecast their future life’s work. But Karen Plaut remembers her 11th birthday gift like it was yesterday, and it was certainly nothing short of prophetic.

“I loved science so much as a kid that I wanted a microscope for my birthday. When I was lucky enough to get one, I remember I was so excited that the first thing I did was take an onion skin to look at its cells.”

Purdue’s newly appointed Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture says she’s been interested in animals and science for as long as she can remember, and, although her mother was an artist and her sister would become a designer, “Those artistic genes definitely didn’t come my way.” Instead, Plaut’s academic interests were always her passion. From that first experience with her microscope to the research that she continues to conduct with her Purdue lab team of undergraduate and graduate students, the word Plaut most often uses to describe her work as a researcher and her career as a university administrator is “fun.”

Plaut had another childhood preoccupation that also became a lifetime love—horses. She had horses growing up and has brought a horse to every place she’s moved, from Vermont to California to Indiana. She has trained her current horse in dressage, a series of both simple and intricate maneuvers that requires a kind of symbiotic relationship between rider and horse. As much concentration as dressage requires, Plaut finds it relaxing: “It’s a chance to concentrate on what you’re doing with the horse, and that gives you a break from everything else. You don’t think about anything but you and the horse.”

Growing up in upstate New York, Plaut and her family vacationed in Vermont. When it was time for her to choose a college, the combination of its animal sciences department’s strong reputation and her love for the state brought her to the University of Vermont (UVM), where she would earn her undergraduate degree, meet her husband David and later return as a faculty member.

Initially, UVM was also the place where Plaut, like many students interested in animals and science, thought she would prepare to attend veterinary school. She soon discovered, however, that her work in the labs and with the animals was her calling. Three professors especially influenced her professionally and personally: “Don Foss, a physiologist, really taught me how to think and allowed me to do undergraduate research in poultry. My adviser, Jim Welch, was an animal nutritionist and I worked in his lab, where I got excited about dairy research. In fact, I lived below the nutrition lab, which was at the University Dairy Farm. There was an apartment in the basement and the research cows lived above the apartment!  I also took an endocrinology course from Roger Simmons that inspired my research throughout my career.”

After graduation, Plaut went to Penn State, where she earned her master’s in animal nutrition, and then to Cornell University, where she earned a doctorate in animal sciences focusing on research in lactation biology. Her adviser was in the National Academy of Sciences and well known for groundbreaking dairy research. Plaut then completed a two-year postdoc at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, where she conducted breast cancer research and developed new tools to bring to animal sciences research. She was especially pleased when the first place she could use those tools was the University of Vermont, where she was hired to fill the position of Roger Simmons, the professor whose class had first inspired her. “It felt like coming full circle,” Plaut says.

She had only been at UVM a few years when another biologist reached out to her to co-write a grant to NASA to study pregnant rats that would travel on the space shuttle. After receiving funding, Plaut and her research partner were challenged to set up two completely equipped and staffed labs in California and Florida. The decision on where the shuttle would land was made without time to travel across the country, and the testing needed to start immediately after the animals were removed from the shuttle. The challenge energized Plaut, who says she especially enjoyed assembling large groups of students to be involved in the effort. A few years later, as Plaut prepared to go on sabbatical, she decided to apply for and was selected as the lead scientist for NASA’s biological research project for the International Space Station.

Soon Plaut, her husband and her horse were moving to California, where she would work at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Plaut says her first day is one she will never forget. “I walked into a room with carpeted walls and no windows,” she remembers. “They told me they were going to order lunch for me because I wouldn’t have any breaks. And then for the next eight hours scientists and engineers came in every hour to tell me about their projects they were working on that were scheduled to fly on the space station. When I walked outside to our car I told my husband that there was no way I could do the job. He reassured me I could. It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly I began to feel more confident.”

Plaut says that experience taught her valuable lessons that are particularly applicable to her new position as the dean of Purdue Agriculture. “Part of what intimidated me that first day were all the specialty areas. But eventually learning how to work across disciplines was what I really gained from this experience, and something that has been especially important in my roles as associate dean and now as dean of our college. At NASA, I also got to work with scientists, engineers, astronauts, children and the public, which helped me learn to describe our work in terms that were relevant to the audience.”

Plaut enjoyed her time at NASA so much that she considered staying. But she wanted to return to the academic environment where she knew she could innovate. She also missed engaging with students, something she has loved from her first experiences as a teaching assistant, “I especially like sparking students’ interests in the classroom and lab,” Plaut says. She applied for and was hired as chair of the Department of Animal Science at UVM, a position she held for five years.

As much as she loved working at her alma mater, Plaut decided moving to Michigan State University, where she would chair a much larger department, was the next opportunity she needed to take. “I knew I wanted to make a difference in different ways, and moving to other institutions was what I needed to do,” she says.

Five years later Plaut was hired as associate dean and director of research at Purdue’s College of Agriculture. She was later promoted to senior associate dean of research and faculty affairs. In July 2017, she was appointed interim dean of the college before being offered the position of dean in May 2018.

Although Plaut’s career has taken her across country and disciplines and up the academic and leadership ladder, certain truths about who she is are very much like that young girl who opened her first microscope with such glee. She is energized by her research and the students she works with and meets through wide-ranging college activities. She is motivated by making a difference in the lives of students, faculty and staff, the citizens of Indiana, and the people Purdue Agriculture reaches across this country, oceans, and continents. And this evening when she returns home after a long day, she will ride her horse, relax and prepare for the next opportunity.