Passion for plants and pedagogy

It was a dislike for fishing that sparked Hugo Cota-Sanchez’s interest in plants, an interest that landed the biology professor the university’s Master Teacher Award at Spring Convocation 2016.

By Lesley Porter

Hugo Cota-Sanchez (photo by David Stobbe)

Cota-Sanchez is originally from northwest Mexico near the Pacific coast. Growing up, his father was an avid fisherman who took the family to the beach often—much to his dismay.

“I found it very boring— extremely boring, just standing there waiting for the fish to pick up the hook,” he said. “I just dropped my line and went hiking around and started looking at plants.”

From those early impromptu hikes, Cota-Sanchez became fascinated with the distribution patterns of plants in the area and how each species differed from one another. He followed that curiosity to the Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Biológicas in Mexico City, where he completed his undergraduate degree in biology. Following some floristic inventory and taxonomy work with the Mexican government, Cota-Sanchez went on to complete master’s and doctoral degrees in the U.S. before coming to the U of S in 2000.

An established researcher, Cota-Sanchez’s area of specialty is the evolution and physiology of Cactaceae (cacti). Given Saskatchewan’s less-than tropical climate, he travels to Mexico and South America several times a year to conduct fieldwork. He is also the curator of the university herbarium, located on the third floor of the Agriculture Building.

The passion for his work is evident the moment you step into his office—a green thumb’s haven, expertly curated with plants collected from years of travel, camping and garage sales. Cota-Sanchez believes in giving students a hands-on experience, and his work space greenery collection serves double duty as material for the classroom.

By focusing on the structure, function and utility of a plant—rather than just memorizing terms—Cota-Sanchez aims to make learning fun.

“I do a lot of show and tell and I spend a lot of time collecting teaching material to bring to class,” he said. “My courses involve all kinds of plants, and I try to find the connection of a plant with their daily lives.”

He also explores the etymology and symbolism of plants in a unique way. Using the passion flower (Passiflora) as an example, he explained how the physical elements of the flower— such as its shape, petal structure, tendrils and colours—are symbolic of Christian interpretations of the crucifixion of Christ.

“I use that as an example in class,” he said. “Plants not only have this interesting structure, functions and adaptability, but their symbolism is phenomenal.”

The recipient of the university’s highest teaching award also serves as a mentor for many students and junior researchers, a role he relishes.

“Having students identify with me and establish a relationship as a mentor is very rewarding,” he said. “That trust is very important to me—a fantastic reward for me,” he said.