Young plant scientists are top emerging botanists

Two FIU biology students were recently recognized by the Botanical Society of America as the country’s top, emerging botanists.

Imeña Valdes and Rebecca Valls were among 27 students from the United States to receive the Young Botanist Award. Offering individual recognition to outstanding graduating seniors in the plant sciences, the award encourages participation in the Botanical Society of America, one of the world’s largest societies devoted to the study of plants and related organisms.

Imeña Valdes in the Everglades National Park.

Imeña Valdes in the Everglades National Park.

“Both Imeña and Rebecca are filled with passion,” said Eric von Wettberg, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and researcher with the International Center for Tropical Botany, a collaboration between FIU and the National Tropical Botanical Garden. “I see this recognition of their promise as emerging botanists as a step towards graduate school and future careers in science. I am very proud of both of them.”

Valdes is studying pollination biology of flowering plants native to Central America, Mexico, the West Indies and Florida under Biology Professor Suzanne Koptur. Valdes also studied how chickpea retains chlorophyll, or green pigments, in hopes of developing new and nutritious varieties of chickpea in the von Wettberg Conservation Genetics Lab. Valdes recently served as a biological science aide with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s an honor to be recognized at such an early stage of my career, especially by a society made up of botanists I admire,” Valdes said. “It validates all the hard work I have put in thus far, but also gives me the drive to keep moving forward.”

This summer, Valdes will travel to China to conduct research on orchids and mangroves at Guangxi University. She is expected to graduate in summer 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and dietetics and nutrition. Valdes hopes to pursue a career in botany to better human nutrition.

Rebecca Valls

Rebecca Valls

Rebecca Valls, a research assistant in the von Wettberg Conservation Genetics Lab, dedicated her undergraduate research to studying how different concentrations of nitrogen, often used as fertilizer, affect the growth of roots and stems of chickpeas. The research could ultimately help breeders develop a climate-resilient, higher-yielding chickpea variety.

“It feels amazing to be recognized by the Botanical Society of America,” Valls said. “We spent hours working in the lab and in the field, so it feels good to be grouped with other students conducting great research.”

Valls will present of her research at the Botanical Society of America’s annual conference this July. She is expected to graduate this summer and will apply to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in genetics or molecular biology.