My internship at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Name: Andrea Benitez

Hometown: Miami, FL

Major: Environmental Studies

Where did you intern? I interned at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, in partnership with the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC).

How did you get your internship? I was taking the course Restoration Ecology with Dr. Hong Liu, when she offered the class this internship opportunity with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. I immediately became interested because I would be working with invasive plant species in Florida.

What did you do there? What projects did you work on? My main duties at this internship was to fill out the Application for Inclusion to Or Exclusion from the Noxious Weed List. A noxious weed is a plant which may be a serious threat to Florida’s agriculture, have a negative impact on endangered or threatened plant species, or if the plant has become naturalized in Florida and is disrupting native plant communities. The plants added on this Noxious Weed List are commonly invasive exotic plants, which are plants that sustain themselves outside of cultivation and are expanding their range throughout Florida plant communities.

During my internship, I collected information and filled out the application for 6 invasive species: Eugenia uniflora, Nephrolepis cordifoliaNandina domesticaWisteria sinensisElaeagnus pungens, and Xanthosoma saggitifolium. FLEPPC has determined that each of these species has been seen as a threat to Florida plant communities as either Category I or Category II invasive plant species. A Category I invasive is when the species is already altering native plant communities by displacing the native plant species. A Category II invasive is when the exotic species has been increasing in abundance but has not yet altered the native plant communities. The addition of these invasive species to the Noxious Weed List would remove these species from the Florida trade market, not allowing them to be bought or sold in the state of Florida. It would also promote the removal or management of these species, especially in natural areas.

What was the coolest thing about your internship or that happened during your internship?  The coolest thing was being able to assist in field work with my internship mentor, James Lange, and his colleagues. James Lange is a Field Biologist that focuses of conservation ecology, restoration ecology, GIS mapping of rare plants, and many other related areas. I was able to accompany him on a trip to Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys to collect seeds from 2 state endangered species: Ageratum maritimum and Evolvulus grisebachii. I also had the opportunity to join Christen Mason, an invasive species biologist for the South Florida Water Management District, in the treatment and monitoring of non-native plants in parts of the Everglades system. Both of these were amazing hands-on experiences that gave me a look at the various career paths I could follow.

What advice do you have for those beginning the internship process? The best advice I could give is to start early and be persistent. There are plenty of opportunities for finding the internship that calls your attention, you just have to look for them. Many times, your own professors may need an intern or know someone who does, so don’t forget to ask. Although an internship may take up much of your time, it is well worth it. Internships are perfect networking opportunities, may help you in finding the career path that you would like to follow, as well as providing much needed experience.

What did you like most about your experience? Although here were many things I enjoyed, my favorite was meeting people working in this research community and learning everything I could from them. Each one of them, ranging from horticulturists to biologists to botanists, broadened my horizon in terms of the career path I would likely choose, especially since I never really knew what I wanted to do.

What did you learn about yourself?  I realized how much I enjoy learning about each of the invasive species and seeing first-hand how they are affecting our Florida ecosystems. This internship really solidified the fact that I would like a career involving the treatment and management of invasive species. I also learned how much I enjoyed going out to do field work in the different natural preserves that I visited. Whether it would be for seed collection or managing invasives in the area, it was always a great experience which I hope I will be able to repeat.

How did the position increase your professional confidence? This internship gave me a new perspective of the environmental research field and helped me realize how much I enjoyed it. It gave me valuable experience both in field techniques as well as researching techniques. Also, I gained knowledge of the types of plants in South Florida, both native and non-native species, and how each one affects the other. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to continue working with various endangered or threatened native plant species in the Seed Lab at the Fairchild Botanical Garden Research Center. This is going to give me experience with working in a lab environment, which will be very useful in the future.