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RACINE — Sam Marquardt grew a green thumb early.

The 2013 Horlick High School graduate remembers puttering around the garden with his father, Kurt, when he was only a lad.

“It always interested me that some plants seemed to be healthier than others,” said Marquardt, who just finished his third year at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I wanted to dig deeper and find out the reasons for that.”

Marquardt is doing exactly that at Madison, majoring in both plant pathology and life science communication in the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

He also recently won the Della Balousek Memorial Scholarship from the Wisconsin Garden Club Federation, a prestigious award based on academic record, character and occupational objectives. The scholarship is worth $2,500, and Marquardt won an additional $1,000 from the federation.

A counselor at Madison suggested that Marquardt apply for the scholarship, named after a late member of the Olbrich Garden Club in Madison who donated countless hours to her local garden club and the state federation.

“Della Balousek was a hard-working, fun-loving and talented garden club member with a very positive attitude toward both progress and education,” said Mary Kulhanek, a federation spokesperson. “She had a very positive attitude toward both progress and education. She made sure that when she passed away her legacy would be carried on with this endowed scholarship fund.”

The federation scholarships encourage the study of horticulture, floriculture, landscape design and architecture, botany, forestry, agronomy, plant pathology, environmental studies, city planning, land management or related studies.

“You can see that our scholarships support a wide range of subjects that pertain to the health and well-being of our planet and its people,” Kulhanek said. “As population increases, the demand on the Earth’s resources escalates and the need for those with the scientific background to address the challenges intensifies. Our organization is committed to education, civic and environmental responsibility and believes scholarship awards meets all these goals.”

Two areas of study

There are about 90 studying plant pathology at Madison, but Marquardt has carved his own niche by adding the life science communication major at the same time.

Plant pathology is the study of plants and their health, and how plant diseases are influenced by the weather, microorganisms, and nutrition. Life science communication started in 1908 as the first Department of Agricultural Journalism.

Marquardt isn’t quite sure how he will combine the two tracks into one career, but he wouldn’t mind bringing the plight of plants to a larger audience.

“I want to help fill what I think is a disconnect between scientists and public,” he said. “I think sometimes people don’t trust what scientists say. I think it you can find a way to simplify the problems you can make it easier to reach people. I would like to try and build a bridge.”

One of Marquardt’s role models was Bill Nye, the famous television science guy. Having a television show about plants might be in the offing some day, Marquardt said.

“Shooting for the stars and landing in the clouds is still good,” he said.

City boy

Marquardt’s unusual choice of study — you don’t see many plant pathology majors from Racine — seems to intrigue his friends and family, he said.

“They see it as a different kind of area and they ask me about it,” he said. “Normally the people you see in it are people who grew up farms.”

Marquardt grew up in the city, but he and his dad grew to love the garden.

“I did have a bit of a green thumb,” said Kurt Marquardt, a former advertising representative at The Journal Times. “We would put seeds in the old ice cube trays then try to find something larger to put the plants in. We planted annual flowers and pepper — a lot of peppers. It was just the fun stuff any parent does with their kid. Everything else he did pretty much on his own.”

Kurt credited Sam’s teachers in Racine Unified School District for fostering his bent toward science and math. “When he was young I was amazed at the things he was learning,” Kurt said. “He has become a really smart kid and he got that through a lot of hard studying. I’m really proud of him. He’s doing well and he has kept growing.”

“He made an important impression on me and where I am headed,” Sam said. “Gardening is an art and it is beautiful. It’s something that needs to be kept alive.”

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