Vicki was born on November 26, 1947, in Owensboro, Kentucky, where she grew up, except for stays on or near Air Force bases in Virginia, Texas, and Ohio, all of which ended before she started primary school. Her father, Edwin Joseph, was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and for a private company, Texas Gas Transmission Corporation, located in Owensboro. Her mother raised three children: Edwin Jr., Vicki Ann, and Jared Kirk. Vicki attended Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky from 1965 to 1969, changing her major several times, including physics, chemistry, and history before settling on biology. The plan of attending medical school was discarded after a summer of working in a hospital as a volunteer. During college Vicki worked as a camp counselor and modeled clothes at local stores, and during Christmas she was the fastest gift wrapper in Anderson’s Department Store. After she graduated Vicki spent over two years in Germany working part-time and traveling. Returning from Germany she taught high school for one year and then spent a summer at the Hancock Biological Station on Kentucky Lake where she fell in love with field work. It was hard for her to believe that one could study and work at something so wonderful. She entered Murray State University’s graduate program in biology in the fall of 1973 where she was employed as a graduate teaching assistant. Her advisor was Dr. Marian Fuller, and she earned her MS degree in the summer of 1975. Her thesis, A Floristic and Geologic Survey of Selected Seeps of Calloway County, Kentucky, was published in Castanea and the Transactions of the Kentucky Academy of Sciences.
In 1975, Vicki went to Ohio State University to work on a PhD degree with Ron Stuckey. She spent part of that summer at Stone Lab in Lake Erie studying aquatic plants. After becoming enamored with tropical botany, she switched to working with the flowering plant family Compositae, under the directory of Tod Stuessy. During her five years at Ohio State, she spent nearly a year in Mexico and Central America, with an additional trip to Colombia, collecting Compositae. Her thesis, The Systematics of Montanoa Cerv. (Compositae), was completed in October 1980 and she graduated in December of that year. Her thesis was published in the Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden in 1982. In 1976, she found a book in the library by Willi Hennig, and through the Science Citation Index she located a “nest” of cladists at the American Museum of Natural History. The search for the best way to use systematic data to study evolution was a big part of her graduate training.
After working for years in small herbaria she was determined to spend some time in a large herbarium. She applied for and received a postdoctoral internship at the New York Botanical Garden where she studied the Compositae with Art Cronquist and spent one day a week at the American Museum of Natural History. Just after arriving in New York she gave a presentation at the American Museum and learned about “New York Rules” and after that nothing fazed her when it came to giving talks
In October 1981, she was hired as Curator of Compositae, Department of Botany, Smithsonian Institution. Throughout the early 1980s she spent quite a bit of time learning about the Andes, quite a change from Mexico. At the suggestion of Jose Cuatrecasas, she began a revision of Werneria, which required many field trips to the high elevations of the Andes (ca. 5000 m). She immediately became a committed high-elevation botanist. At her high school reunion in 1985 she was selected as the graduate with the most esoteric job. In 1986, she agreed to help with the Flora of the Guianas program thinking it would take only a few hours a month. Since 1987, she has been director of what is now the Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield Program, a multi-disciplinary international program to document, study, and preserve the biodiversity of northeastern South America. Her research interests are in the tropical Compositae, cladistics, biogeography, conserving biodiversity of tropical areas, the furtherance of systematics, and generally causing trouble. She is author or co-author of over 130 publications including several books. She has served on the USA Board of Directors for the International Association of Plant Taxonomists, as council member, treasurer, and president of the Society of Systematic Biologists (Zoology), and as member-at-large of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and is president-elect of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the International Biogeography Society. In 2000 Vicki and her colleagues founded “The International Compositae Alliance,” which fosters work in the family and hosts international meetings. In 2004, Vicki was promoted to senior scientist.
Vicki was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1999.