Board of Directors

SGI currently operates within the framework of Austin Peay State University Foundation, which gives SGI flexibility to function within a 501(c)(3) non-profit capacity. We are currently exploring options for creating a separate foundation within the University. This will involve establishing on our board of directors. Please stay tuned.

Dwayne estes ph.d., executive director

Dwayne Estes serves as executive director at SGI. He is a Full Professor of Biology, Director of the APSU Herbarium, and Principal Investigator for the Center of Excellence for Field Biology. In January 2017, he co-founded SGI with colleague, Theo Witsell. Under his leadership as director of SGI, the fledgling organization has secured more than $2 million dollars in funding, and in the past five years he and his collaborators have been awarded three grants from the National Science Foundation. Dwayne’s research interests include the flora, ecology, history, biodiversity, and biogeography of the Southeastern U.S. with emphasis on grasslands. He has published 20+ publications and co-authored the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee published in 2015 by the University of Tennessee Press. He enjoys mentoring his six graduate students and working hand-in-hand with a dedicated SGI team. He has been active in building diverse support for Southeastern US grasslands conservation, including bringing together philanthropists, government agencies, non-profits, corporate and small-business partners, private landowners and ranchers, historians, educators, and citizen scientists.


Theo Witsell, Director of research

Theo Witsell serves as Director of Research for SGI, gathering and synthesizing data on the ecological and historical significance of southeastern grasslands, advising coordinators, and providing scientific direction and ecological context for the program. Theo has worked as senior botanist and ecologist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission since 2000 and in 2013 was invited to serve as a research associate with BRIT. He publishes regularly and has authored or co-authored more than 30 scientific publications and book chapters, including the description of new species. In addition to his scientific expertise, Theo is intimately familiar with practical on-the-ground management of natural areas and conservation strategies and brings unique expertise in this area. 


Alan Weakley, ph.D., chair of sgi's scientific advisory committee

Alan Weakley, is widely regarded as one the leading botanists and plant community ecologists in the eastern U.S. with extensive on-the-ground experience in all Southeastern states. He holds a B.S. degree in botany from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in botany from Duke University. He currently serves as Director of the Herbarium at the North Carolina Botanical Garden and adjunct professor at UNC.  In his 40-year career, he has served as Senior Regional Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy and Chief Ecologist for NatureServe. He served as Trustee of the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund from 2008-2013 and Chair of the N.C. Plant Conservation Program’s Scientific Advisory Committee. He is the author of Flora of the Southern & Mid-Atlantic States, a botanical manual covering about 7000 plant species, now the standard in use across much of the southeastern U.S., and has been a leader in the development of the U.S. National Vegetation Classification System. Alan brings an extraordinary level of expertise and wisdom to SGI as chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board. He will work with board members in the 21 states of the SGI region to identify and rank projects in need funding and/or urgent conservation action.  

Alan's University of North Carolina Page

Alan's Linkedin Page


Research Associates

Cooper Breeden, Community Ecologist

Cooper is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Biology at Austin Peay State University and a Research Associate for SGI. He is currently studying the effects of canopy-thinning on the flora and ecology of rare calcareous seepage fen communities and the federally-endangered Tennessee Yellow-Eyed Grass (Xyris tennesseensis) in south-central Tennessee.


Mason brock, botanist

Mason is a recent graduate of Austin Peay State University Biology Department's graduate program and currently serves as Collections Manager for the APSU Herbarium, a collection of 120,000 specimens. For his graduate work, Mason documented the flora and plant communities of riparian grasslands, shrublands, and woodlands along the Caney Fork River in east-central Tennessee. He also serves as Research Associate for SGI.


Claire Ciafre, Grassland Ecologist

Claire is first-year graduate student in the Biology Department at Austin Peay State University and is a Research Associate for SGI. She is leading efforts to document the highest quality wet grasslands in Tennessee and will soon be working on a project to document riparian grasslands on the Cumberland Plateau. For her thesis, she is studying the flora and community ecology of rare depression ponds that support marsh vegetation and that historically were embedded in open oak savannas. 


Zach Irick, Grassland Ecologist

Zach is a second-year graduate student in the Biology Department at Austin Peay State University and is a Research Associate for SGI. He is currently working in northeastern Alabama to document the flora, rare plants, and plant communities associated with the riparian corridor of the Little River at Little River Canyon National Preserve. For his thesis, Zach is conducting a taxonomic study of a group of herbaceous vines of the genus Clematis (leatherflowers), which includes several undescribed species, including a few that are endemic to grassland habitats. 


devin rodgers, grassland ecologist

Devin graduated with a master's degree from Austin Peay State University's Biology Department in 2016. He manages a number of projects as a Research Associate for SGI, including the study of high-quality wet grasslands of Tennessee and the description of new species. In January 2018 he accepted a position as an ecologist with the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission.

Scientific Advisory Board

We will be assembling our Scientific Advisory Board in 2018 who will serve portions of the following states.  Stay tuned for an updated list.













North Carolina




South Carolina




West Virginia