Biology Professor’s Heritage Inspired His Love of Nature


UCF conservation biology professor Pedro F. Quintana-Ascencio, Ph.D., grew up with lush forests as his backyard playground.

He remembers walking through Veracruz, Mexico, listening to the wind playing in the trees and critters calling to each other all around him. His father would sometimes join him on horseback rides to a nearby river and lake.

“I learned to love and respect nature all around me,” Quintana-Ascencio said. “But now, a younger generation sees it in a different way. They only know Veracruz as a place with agriculture and buildings.”

Today, Quintana-Ascencio is working hard to preserve Florida’s natural habitat for future generations.

“It’s very scary,” he said. “People will not feel that the Earth is being threatened, because they won’t have anything to compare it to. They will not know of a time when green was bountiful.”

The desire to preserve nature and learn from our past, is what propelled Quintana-Ascencio to pursue his career. He has a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution from State University of New York at Stony Brook. Quintana-Ascencio joined UCF in 2003 after working at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

Since 2005 he’s been working on National Science Foundation-funded projects, the most recent called “Using Long-Term Data, Experiments and Modeling to Assess Disturbance-Demography Dynamics in Changing Environments.” Most of this field work is conducted in collaboration with Eric S. Menges at the Archbold Biological Station near Lake Placid, Florida. The focus is on 29 endemic plant species at Archbold.

“What we do is go to the plants and ‘ask’ them questions,” Quintana-Ascencio said. “We get information on ‘How dry or wet are the conditions where they live?’ and ‘When it rains, do they grow more or less?’ We collect this information and then use it to calculate the chances for the populations to persist as the environment changes.”

Another part of the study focuses on the consequences of the actions of neighboring organisms, including people.

The information collected serves to evaluate alternatives to preserve biodiversity and improve human life. He tells the students that they can work with whatever organism they like, as long as they also seek to figure out how humans affect the environment around them. He hopes that his continued research and that of his students will help preserve Florida’s biodiversity for future generations.

His twin daughters have inherited their father’s passion for preservation. One daughter has two master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Texas and works with a building restoration firm in New York. His other daughter has a Ph.D in archaeology from Bristol University in the United Kingdom. She is working in East Africa to preserve Swahili culture.

Preserving nature and culture are important aspects of Quintana-Ascencio’s life.

“I appreciate diversity in plants, animals and people,” he said. “I am convinced that this is one of the most wonderful things that we have in this country and in the world. The people from Spanish speaking countries have a lot to contribute to this and I am glad to be part of this effort.”

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