Chicita Forman Culberson Ph.D. ’59 has devoted her career to the painstaking task of cataloguing the chemical diversity of lichens, those drab growths one sees clinging to life on rocks and tree trunks in the most unlikely places.
It’s fussy, detailed, eye-squinting work. At age seventy-nine, she’s still doing it full time and some weekends in a chilly lab in Duke’s Biological Sciences Building filled with functioning museum-piece equipment. “I don’t know, I just like to mess around,” she says with a shrug and one of her easy smiles.
Culberson has her own lab, has brought in some crucial grants, and is officially a senior research scientist in the biology department, but Duke has never paid her.
To the untrained eye, and even to many of the trained ones, lichens are sometimes hard to tell apart just by looking. Starting in the 1950s, Culberson perfected a standardized way to chemically sort lichens so they could be identified.
Every lichen lab in the world and every scientist trying to identify lichen species has relied on Culberson’s thin-film chromatography technique for the past fifty years.
“Chicita’s pioneering work and dedication brought lichen chemistry out of the Dark Ages,” says lichenologist Doug Ladd, director of conservation science for the Nature Conservancy in St. Louis. “Having relatively simple methods to assess the chemical constituents of lichens opened up our understanding of lichen taxonomy, ecology, physiology, and biogeography in ways that are continuing to this day. Her work remains invaluable even with the advent of modern molecular techniques.”
She came to Duke in 1955 with her husband, the late William L. Culberson, who had been hired to teach general botany, and enrolled in the chemistry Ph.D. program. As Bill rose through the ranks, eventually becoming department chair and director of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Chicita revolutionized their field.
“We came here with the idea that he would be the botanist and I would be the chemist and we could work together symbiotically,” she says. It’s a choice analogy: Lichens themselves are actually two organisms—fungus and alga working together in symbiosis.
An early user of computers, Culberson adapted the chromatography data to paper punch cards to digitize them, standardizing the field still more. Much of Duke’s 160,000-specimen lichen collection has been catalogued this way, and she continues to build a database that is used around the world.
It’s all on the Internet now, but the punch cards are still there in a file drawer, should they ever be needed. The lichen specimens from Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and France that her husband brought along when he first arrived in Durham are still in the collection, too.
And daily e-mail messages and phone calls come in from all over the world seeking Culberson’s advice. “Most of what I do now is trying to help people,” she says.
Bates is director of research communications in Duke's Office of News & Communications.