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Timothy J. Motley, Stiffler Professor of Botany, Dies

tmotley-timothy-motleyTimothy J. Motley

Timothy J. Motley, the J. Robert Stiffler Distinguished Professor of Botany at Old Dominion University and director of science at the Norfolk Botanical Garden (NBG), died Thursday, March 28, after suffering a heart attack. He was 47.

Among his survivors are his wife, Tatyana Lobova, a lecturer in ODU's Department of Biological Sciences, and 2-year-old son, Anton.

"His death is a great loss to botany at ODU," said Lytton J. Musselman, the university's Mary Payne Hogan Professor of Botany and a former department chair who recruited Motley nearly a decade ago. "He will be missed by his botanical colleagues, fellow faculty and especially students."

Musselman, who was on a botanical field trip with Motley and students just a few days before his sudden passing, said his colleague had arranged this semester an internship program enabling ODU students to work at NBG for credit. "That was one of his many legacies in his few years at ODU," Musselman added.

"Tim had the gift, unusual among plant scientists, of being able to communicate botany with the general public, an ability he used both at the (Norfolk Botanical) Garden and in teaching undergraduate courses at ODU," Musselman said. "His Ethnobotany course, dealing with the diverse ways humans use plants, was always popular and filled up soon after registration opened."

Motley, who grew up on a farm in central Illinois, became interested in plants and gardening at an early age. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in botany at Eastern Illinois University. But for his doctoral work, he moved to the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and his core research became Pacific-based. "I am intrigued by how these remote islands became populated by plants and animals, and what the relationships are between plants that occur on separate islands or archipelagos," he said in an interview soon after arriving at ODU in 2006.

Prior to joining ODU, Motley was associate curator of the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics Studies at The New York Botanical Garden. The molecular studies program was just getting started when he took a job there in 1997. "When I saw this position in Norfolk, I once again saw a chance to build a molecular plant research program with the NBG and Old Dominion," Motley said in the 2006 interview.

In the 1990s he secured adjunct faculty affiliations with City University of New York, Columbia University, New York University, Cooper Union and Yale University. After joining ODU he was named an adjunct at Minzu University in Beijing, China, an eminent academician and scientist at the University of Madras, India, and a member of the graduate faculty at Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, Spain.

Motley was the first researcher to hold the joint ODU/NBG professorship named for Stiffler, a former gardening columnist of The Virginian-Pilot and the author of "Gardening in Southeastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina." The professorship was made possible by a $1 million anonymous gift. Motley also directed ODU's Arthur and Phyllis Kaplan Orchid Conservatory.

Although Motley did research in the Pacific islands, he often pointed out that a plant group he studied has a close relationship to the bluets of the U.S. East Coast, where Stiffler's expertise was centered. Motley was an expert in molecular systematics, and used molecular techniques-for example, to study DNA-in order to learn the sort of evolutionary relationship that would tie bluets to plants on a Pacific island.

He won national praise for a book that he edited together with two colleagues and for which he wrote several chapters, "Darwin's Harvest: New Approaches to the Origins, Evolution, and Conservation of Crops." The book addresses concerns about the loss of crop-plant diversity throughout the world.

Motley also authored approximately 50 articles for refereed journals and delivered dozens of invited lectures in the United States and abroad.

A new species of plant in the coffee family was named in honor of Motley last year. The plant that is now known as Chiococca motleyana had previously been classified as the only member of the genus Asemnantha. Motley authored a journal article in 2005 describing DNA analyses he and colleagues had conducted on this small shrub. The article made a case for a reclassification to the genus Chiococca.

His research interests included the fields of plant systematics, population genetics, conservation, ethnobotany and reproductive biology. The studies focused on the molecular systematics of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) and the strychnine family (Loganiaceae).

Motley organized botanical expeditions, which included one in 2002 to the island of Rapa iti, Austral Islands, French Polynesia. This was the first extensive research project there since the 1930s and his research team discovered many new species and new island records. They estimated that their collections had increased the size of the existing flora by 10 percent. This was part of a larger program to study the endangered flora and remaining vegetation in the entire Austral archipelago.

He led expeditions in 2007 to the Galapagos Islands and in 2009 to the Louisiade Archipelago.

Motley's wife, Lobova, is the author of "Seed Dispersal by Bats in the Neotropics," published in 2009 by New York Botanical Garden Press.

Musselman said a memorial service will be held at Norfolk Botanical Garden in May, but that arrangements are incomplete.