Grad Student Sees Future Filled With Teaching, Conservation Work

Federico López Borghesi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology with a strong interest in conservation. His research explores agriculture, ecology and plant physiology, with an emphasis on statistical and computational approaches.  

This Spring he was recognized for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching by UCF. Here Borghesi shares his journey to UCF and what’s next for his career.  

1) What inspired you to pursue conservation biology? 

I think we often crave linear stories that neatly unfold in front of us. The usual narrative in conservation begins with a child catching little critters and spending time outdoors and ends with a researcher exploring the intricacies of nature. And that might be the case for a lucky few. My journey, however, meandered quite a bit. I had to try many things before I found the path I wanted to follow. And that, I think, it’s the most common type of story. 

I did grow up in a small town in the mountains in Argentina, and I did spend my fair share of time hiking and camping as a kid. But by the time I was a teenager, I was spending more time playing with electronics than walking outdoors, and I had discovered a knack for mathematics. When I went to college, then, engineering felt like the right fit. Not long after, though, I had to quit college to immigrate to the US.  

The experiences as an immigrant transformed me. I became fascinated with the diverse tapestry of human experiences. And so, when I finally decided to return to school, I pivoted first towards journalism and then towards cultural anthropology. It was during this academic exploration that nature came back into the picture for me. While taking classes like ethnobotany and anthropology of conservation, I gained a renewed sense of the importance of the natural world to the human experience. I changed directions one more time and decided to study plant ecology. In conservation, I found my purpose – a calling to help protect the delicate balance of nature both through research and teaching. 

Looking back, I realize that the winding journey was not a detour. Each experience shaped me and prepared me for the path I now follow. I gained skills that have proven essential to how I perform my work – skills like quantitative thinking, communication, and social awareness. If anything, I hope my story helps alleviate some anxiety for students who are not sure about their paths.  

2) Why did you choose UCF for your degree? 

The simplest and shortest answer is that I chose UCF to work with my advisor Pedro Quintana-Ascencio.  

When I first decided to pursue a doctoral degree, I was only considering schools out West where I had lived since immigrating. I met Pedro when I came to Florida to do a post-bachelor’s internship. We clicked immediately. Not only were our research ideas very compatible, we also had clear philosophical affinity. Pedro also embraced the need to discuss multiple perspectives in our work – including social, historical, cultural, and political dimensions. This multifaceted approach, it seems to me, is essential to conservation in particular and scientific endeavors in general. 

I believe finding the right advisor should be one of the most important considerations when choosing a graduate program. For me, that meant making a few sacrifices. While I have found some great resources at UCF and encountered a great community, similar programs at other universities offered better stipends and other benefits such as graduate housing.  

In this aspect, I know my experience is not unique. Many students have joined our program to work with a particular professor. Protecting this asset should be a key priority to maintain a healthy program. However, rising costs of living are making this type of decision more difficult. Improving benefits should also be prioritized. 

3) Who are some of the people you’ve met through studying at UCF that inspire you? 

Life as a graduate student can be a bit isolating. You spend most of your time in the lab and venture as far as the conference room for seminars. Luckily, we have a wonderful community in our department that has inspired me in many ways and driven me to be a better scholar. 

Students and professors who are passionate about their work always help me expand my horizons and drive me to dig a bit deeper in my own research. Their curiosity is contagious. Among many others, interactions with Davide Dal Pos, Chase Mason, and Kate Mansfield always give me a boost of energy.  Likewise, those with great dedication to teaching, people like Hannah Bevan and Dave Jenkins, inspire me to grow as an educator. And people who seek to serve the community, like Ian Biazzo and Linda Walters, constantly remind me of what can be accomplished when we work with others. 

When I did venture outside the department, I found equally great people in other corners of the university. Among all of them, I really feel compelled to mention the folk at the Faculty Center. Through their Preparing Tomorrow’s Faculty program, Eric Main and Kirby Whittington really helped me cement my desire to teach. 

Both in the department, and through collaborations as a member of UCF, I have met conservationists whose example push me forward. Too many to name them all, the early interactions with Reed Noss and my collaborations with Jack Stout help me renew my commitment to nature. 

While it is easy to isolate yourself in your graduate work, it is always important to look up and see who is around you. You can find inspiration, help, and fellowship very close by. For me, that included meeting my wonderful wife, Vanessa Correa, who shares my passion for conservation and community. 

4) What’s next for your career? 

In the immediate future, I will stay as a postdoctoral fellow here at UCF to build upon some of the collaborations and ideas that begun during my graduate studies. I will also continue seeking out opportunities to hone my skills as an educator. 

My long-term goal is to become a faculty member at an undergraduate or a master-granting institution. I want to help bring a new approach to teaching ecology and conservation to an institution where research opportunities are not readily available to the students. My hope is to establish research collaborations with local organizations, such as conservation non-profits, and state parks, both to provide a service to the community and to give students the opportunity for experiential learning. 

With the increasing threats to the natural world, we will need professionals at every level who can think critically and creatively about the challenges around them. I want to help prepare the next generation. 

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