Graduate Students & Alumni

Current Students

Beyte  Barrios

Beyte Barrios obtained her MS in the Department of Biological Sciences of FIU. Currently she is a PhD student in the plant ecology lab of Dr. Suzanne Koptur at FIU. Her work and research experience extend across different areas related to the biodiversity of plants. Her main interests are tropical forest plants, focusing on taxonomy, ecology and phenology. She is particularly interested in ecological problems associated with habitat fragmentation and loss of biodiversity.  Beyte's Ph.D. research focuses on the understory species of the South Florida pine rockland. She is particularly interested in their ecology, phenology and reproductive biology. Under the supervision of our Dr. Eric Von Wettberg she plans to conduct research on how habitat fragmentation affects the genetic structure of Angadenia berteroi a native plant of the South Florida pine rocklands.

Jason Downing received a BS in Biology, with a focus in Entomology, from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he completed post-bachelorette studies in Biology at the University of Miami, where he also worked for the Gifford Arboretum. As assistant to the curator, he became more interested in studying plant-animal interactions, while expanding his practical experience and knowledge on the germination and cultivation of rare species of tropical plants. He later obtained a MS Thesis at Florida International University working under the direction of Dr. Hong Liu in the Department of Earth and the Environment. His thesis research assessed the impacts of a newly naturalized specialist bee Centris nitida on a state threatened native plant, Byrsonima lucida, and its established pollination system. Currently, he is completing his PhD in Biology at FIU under the continued advisement of Dr. Hong Liu. His dissertation research examines the comparative reproductive biology of two local orchid species in the genus Cyrtopodium, of which Cyrtopodium punctatum is an endangered native species, and the other, Cyrtopodium polyphyllum is potentially invasive in South Florida.

          Jason Downing          

 Sara Edelman received a BS in Environmental Science with a concentration in business and a minor in Latin American studies from the University of Florida. While at the University of Florida, Ms. Edelman studied the persistence of invasive reed canary grass in soil banks under the tutelage of Dr. Carrie Reinhardt Adams and her wetland ecology lab. Her work on the invasive Brazilian pepper in southern Florida mangrove habitat at Montgomery Botanical Center was published with the guidance of Dr. M. Patrick Griffith. After graduating, Ms. Edelman joined the Fairchild team. As the Palm and Cycad manager, she cultivated her love of southern Florida palms and horticulture.  As a PhD student in biology, Ms. Edelman will unite her love of southern Florida ecosystems and palm horticulture. Under the advisement of FIU Prof. Jennifer Richards (Department of Biological Sciences), she will study the impact of hydrologic changes in southern Florida on the Everglades palm (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii).


Sara Edelman


José Hidalgo

José Hidalgo moved to the US from Quito, Ecuador in 2006 to complete his undergraduate and Masters degrees at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, with Dr.  Bette Loiselle and Dr. John Blake. He worked with many organisms including plants, mammals and birds. Currently, he is working on his PhD at the University of Miami where he is being advised by Dr. Al Uy.  Jose’s  main research interests focus on understanding the social and evolutionary ecology of tropical avifauna. He is interested in the biogeography and distribution of species across time and space. He has done fieldwork in the US and Central and South America, including a six-year involvement with the Manakin Project in Ecuadorian Amazonia. The focus of his research has been on the nesting and behavioral ecology of manakin species and more recently I have become interested in coordinate singing among males in the Blue-backed manakin (Chiroxiphia pareola). His hope is to continue research related to evolutionary ecology and sexual selection strategies in lekking species.

Patricia Houle is an Instructor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University where she teaches a variety of courses in the area of environmental studies.  Ms. Houle received a M.S. Degree in Nutritional Biochemistry and Metabolism from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for several years in the medical device industry.  Subsequently she returned to graduate school and earned an M.S. degree in Environmental Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems from Florida International UniversityMs. Houle is currently a doctoral student (Ed.D.) in the Department of Teaching and Learning at FIU under the supervision of Dr. George O’Brien. Her research interest is in environmental education and the environmental history of Florida.  For her dissertation Ms. Houle will be researching the writings of David Fairchild to examine his views on nature education during the early twentieth century and on the progressive movement in education, which was also taking place at that time.



Patricia Houle

Brian Machovina received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida International University, where he studied the ecology of Amphiuma means, a salamander, in Everglades National Park. He then spent several years as a research assistant at FIU studying seagrass communities in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Brian moved to Los Angeles to establish a rainforest conservation foundation, Oasis Preserve International, which helped establish the Los Amigos Conservation Concession and Los Amigos Biological Station in Amazonian Peru. Subsequently, he worked for several years with Guayaki Sustainable Rainforest Products, where he helped pioneer a rainforest-harvested tea, Guayaki Yerba Mate, as a model of market-driven conservation and reforestation. Brian was also the Executive Director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations preventing water pollution and promoting kelp reforestation. Brian was also an owner and manager of Essential Living Foods, an importer of organic and wild-harvested commodities. Brian’s research interests for his doctoral degree at FIU involve the roles of agroeology in rainforest conservation. He will be undertaking his Ph.D. under the supervision of Dr. Kenneth Feeley.


Brian Machovina

 Robert McElderry is the current Lisa D. Anness Fellow in Tropical Plant Biology and his Ph.D. is being co-advised by Dr. Joyce Maschinski and Dr. Carol Horvitz.  While it is well known that periodic disturbance is often necessary in maintaining plant communities, Robert is working to understand how the effects of a disturbance regime are transmitted through host plants to their specialized insect herbivores.  In the fire-maintained pine rocklands of South Florida, the Florida leafwing (Anaea floridalis) uses pineland croton (Croton linearis) exclusively as its larval food plant.  Using a combination of ecological experiments and mathematical models, Robert will ask how leafwing population dynamics respond to the occurrence of fire, given the dependence of pineland croton on frequent fire.  With fire management a major consideration for the mitigation of leafwing population decline, a stochastic model incorporating resource and leafwing population dynamics along with the random occurrence of fire is key in testing fire management strategies to find the plan that optimizes the long-term outlook for persistence of the Florida leafwing.


Robert McElderry

Damian Nesbeth hails from the Caribbean island of Jamaica, land of wood and water. As a science educator, he has taught at a high school in addition to being a lecturer in Biological Sciences at the University of Technology, Jamaica.  With the assistance of his advisor, Dr. Eric Von Wettberg, Damian will be studying conservation genetics to identify the ability of species to survive the challenges of a changing world with the goal of identifying those species at risk and where we may need to concentrate conservation efforts.  As a husband and father of two children, he would like to contribute towards the preservation of Earth’s beauty for them to enjoy, the way he does.


Damian Nesbeth

Evan Rehm

After completing a Master's degree from the State University of New York, Evan Rehm has spent the last several years overseas studying threatened and endangered birds. He has worked with Mariana Crows (Corvus kubaryi) in Rota, Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens (Malurus coronatus) in Australia and the Puerto Rican Bullfinch (Loxigilla portoricensis). Evan's background is in avian ecology but he intends to study tree line dynamics in the Peruvian Andes and the role of high elevation birds as seed dispersers. As a Ph.D. student advised by Dr. Kenneth Feeley, Evan hopes to establish a dynamic network of partnerships ultimately leading to increased conservation in South America.

Rosa Rodríguez

Since 2010 Rosa Rodríguez has been the coordinator of the plant conservation program of the National Botanic Garden Dr. Rafael Moscoso of the Dominican Republic. Currently Rosa is developing her Master under the supervision of Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega. Her graduate studies are supported by a joint fellowship between Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and the Fulbright International Educational Exchange Program. Rosa has broad experience with endangered plants from the Dominican Republic. Before joining us she worked in conservation biology projects with the Critically Endangered endemic genus Salcedoa (Asteraceae) and with Pseudophoenix ekmanii (Arecaceae). During her tenure with us Rosa will be using molecular markets to address systematics, phytogeographic, and conservation questions of plant species endemic in the Dominican Republic. Rosa is also interested in ethnobotany and plant ecology.


Vanessa Sánchez

Vanessa Sánchez obtained her B.A. in Biology with a research specialization from St. Thomas University (STU). As a Science and Mathematics Fellow at STU, she worked at Dr. Pilar Maul's Plant Biology Lab, where she conducted research in the micropropagation of plants through plant tissue culture, in species like Lupinus westianus, a federally protected Florida plant, and Hippeastrum.She also worked in developing a sensitive quantitative real  time PCR assay for the detection of Avocado Sunblotch Viroid (ASBVd). Vanessa worked at the USDA-ARS-SHRS for two years at the Ornamentals and Genetics Plant Laboratory, under the supervision of Dr. Alan Meerow, where she gained extensive experience both generating and analyzing microsatellite DNA and targeted DNA sequences. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Agroecology at FIU, under the direction of Dr. Eric vonWettberg and Dr. Krish Jayachandran.


James Stroud

James Stroud completed his B.Sc. (Hons) in Zoology and Conservation from the University of Wales, Bangor, focusing his dissertation research on the habitat factors affecting herpetofauna community composition in a tropical rainforest (Sulawesi, Indonesia), with the assistance of Dr. Graeme Gillespie and Dr. Wolfgang Wüster. Following this he completed his M.Sc. by Research at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences (CEMS) at the University of Hull (Great Britain), under the supervision of Dr. Philip Wheeler. His primary research involved investigating the spatial ecology of the European adder (Vipera berus) in commercially managed forest plantations and testing the suitability of patch occupancy modelling for monitoring of this species. His research interests are broad, with a general interest in landscape and community ecology, often using herpetofauna as model species and study systems. Other areas of interest include behavioural ecology, evolution of (polymorphic) mating systems, terrestrial vertebrate ecology and invasion biology.

Emily Warschefsky

A native Michigander, Emily Warschefsky moved to the Miami heat after receiving her B.A. in Biology from Reed College. She is now pursuing her PhD in Biology in Dr. Eric von Wettberg’s lab at FIU. Her academic interests in botany are rooted in species interactions – particularly hybridization and plant-microbe symbioses – and their relationship to plant distribution and speciation. Beyond botany, Emily enjoys: swamp walks, lichens, pie-baking, jam-canning, quilting, rock climbing, and canoeing.

Wyatt Sharber is the 2011 Lisa D. Anness Fellow in Tropical Plant Biology, co-advised by Dr. Barbara Whitlock and Dr. Carl Lewis. He graduated from Oklahoma State University with a B.S. in Botany and Zoology. While at Oklahoma State, he studied the species boundaries of the subtropical milkweed, Asclepias pringlei (Greenm.) Woodson. In his co-advised position at the University of Miami and the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, Wyatt plans to study the systematics of tropical milkweeds (Family Apocynaceae), particularly in regards to trait evolution, biogeography, and conservation.

Wyatt Sharber


Recent Graduates

Tonia Fotinos, MS (2013) - The effects of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi on four legume hosts in South Florida pine rockland soils.

Klara Scharnagl, MS (2013) - The Effects of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi on four legume hosts in South Florida pine rockland soils.

Catherine Bravo, MS (2013) - Analyzing root:shoot ratio and specific leaf area along an elevational gradient in the Peruvian Andes.

Cara Cooper, MS (2012) - Melinis repens seed bank longevity in Miami-Dade County.

Wuying Lin, MS (2012) - Comparative reproductive biology of a rare endangered orchid and its congeners.

Nora Oleas, PhD (2011) - Landscape genetics of Phaedranassa Herb. (Amaryllidaceae) in Ecuador.

Jason Downing, MS (2011) - Impacts of the naturalized bee Centris nitida on a specialized native mutualism in Southern Florida.

Brett Jestrow, PhD (2010) - Phylogenetics, conservation, and historical biogeography of the West Indian endemic genera of the Adelieae (Euphorbiaceae).

Karen Laubengayer, MS (2008) - Aiphanes minima (Gaertn.) Burret (Arecaceae): a morphological analysis of the Lesser Antillean species complex.

Jeremy Moynihan, PhD (2008) - Dioon Lindl. (Zamiaceae): perspectives from phylogeny and a population genetic study of D. edule.

John Geiger, PhD (2007) - Conservation implications of the reproductive biology of the endangered vine Ipomoea microdactyla  Griseb. (Convolvulaceae).

Brian Sidoti, MS (2007) - A taxonomic revision of Tillandsia fasciculata Sw. (Bromeliaceae).

Julissa Roncal, PhD (2005) - Molecular phylogenetics of the palm tribe Geonomeae and differentiation of Geonoma macrostachys western Amazonian varieties.

Jennifer Trusty, PhD (2005) - Plant biogeography and conservation on a tropical island: Isla del Coco, Costa Rica.

Susan Carrara, MS (2004) - Genetic variation among cultivated selections of mamey sapote (Pouteria spp. [Sapotaceae]).

Elena Pinto-Torres, MS (2004) - The breeding systems and pollination biology of Jacquemontia reclinata (Convolvulaceae).

Hong Liu, PhD (2003) - Population viability analyses of Chamaecrista keyensis (Leguminosae: Caesalpinioideae), a narrowly endemic herb of the lower Florida Keys: effects of seasonal timing of fires and the urban-wildland interface.

Hannah Thornton, MS (2003) - Genetic structure and conservation of Jacquemontia reclinata, an endangered coastal species of Southern Florida.

Nicole Andrus, MS (2002) - The origin, phylogenetics and natural history of Darwiniothamnus (Asteraceae: Astereae), an     endemic shrub of the Galapagos Islands.

Sherine El Sawa, MS (1998) - Pollination and breeding of jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus Lam.) in South Florida.

Suzanne Kennedy, MS (1998) - The seed bank and seedling dynamics of Polygala smallii, the tiny polygala.

Updated: October 8, 2013