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WCSU biologist discovers perfect Valentine’s Day gift

image of Paula and Tom Philbrick in Goias, Brazil
Paula and Tom Philbrick in Goias, Brazil

DANBURY, Conn. — Sorry, guys — no matter what you are planning for Valentine’s Day, it won’t be as good as what Dr. Tom Philbrick did for his wife.

Newtown resident Philbrick is a Connecticut State University professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Western Connecticut State University. His specialty is the study of the biology, ecology and taxonomy of aquatic flowering plants, and he spends many summers away from home pulling specimens from South American rivers.

Last year, while exploring a small stream in Amapá, Brazil, just north of the mouth of the Amazon River, Philbrick and a colleague found the plant.

The setting of the discovery wasn’t particularly romantic.

Illustration of R paulana
Illustration of R paulana

“It’s a small river about the size of the Still River” in Danbury, Philbrick said. “It flows under a bridge and next to a small farm. There’s nothing particularly exotic about it. What’s interesting is the plant is really common. It covered outcrops throughout the stream. I’m sure the locals knew about it for decades. They likely didn’t use it for anything and didn’t recognize it as a species new to science.”

Philbrick said he understood immediately that the plant represented a new species.

“There are 20 or so genera of this family in South America and I can recognize all of them. The fruits were clearly those of a species of the genus Rhyncholacis (pronounced rincho-LATH-us) but the leaf didn’t fit at all.”

For most of us, the plant itself won’t inspire love songs.

As described by Philbrick, the plant “is distinguished from all other species in the genus by its simple pinnately lobed leaf, which is fleshy and undulate.”

To his credit, Philbrick says that nothing about the physical description of the plant reminds him of his wife, Paula Philbrick. Still, the new plant species is now named for Paula, also a Ph.D. biologist who teaches at UConn-Waterbury. Officially the little plant, part of a group called Riverweeds, is known as Rhyncholacis paulana,

Philbrick found the plant in 2014. He has been to Brazil on research trips many times and works with a Brazilian biologist based in Rio de Janeiro named Dr. Claudia Bove.

After identifying a previously unrecognized species, a scientist must study it in the lab to accurately describe it, prepare scientific drawings, and write a manuscript for a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The article is often revised several times based on the comments of other scientists, and then a final proof is sent to the author for review.

It was while the low-key Philbrick reviewed those proof pages in his living room that he let Paula know about his special gift.

“I was reading the pages and she walked in the room and I said, ‘Well, look at this.’ I think she was pleased. She smiled and I think I saw tears in her eyes,” Philbrick remembered. “Only another biologist would be so touched by a new species being named for them.”

Philbrick said he has named 10 to 15 new plant species during his career and finally realized he should do something special.

“If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t be doing this work,” he said. “She’s a marine ecologist and she essentially gave up her research career for our family. She was home for 16 years raising our two kids. Without her encouragement while I was in grad school, I probably wouldn’t have gone on to get my Ph.D.  She continues to be one of my most trusted scientific advisers.”

For more information, or to interview Philbrick, email or call the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.



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