Illinois College students, professors going to Cuba to study ghost orchids, sign agreement

PrintJACKSONVILLE — Before Illinois College officials sign a landmark collaboration agreement with two academic institutions in Cuba Jan. 9-10, two professors and two students will spend a week or so doing what brought the parties to the table in the first place: research.

Particularly, Lawrence Zettler, professor of biology and two students, Justin Mably of Pleasant Plains and Shannon Skarha of Hillsboro, Missouri, will be working alongside Ernesto Mujica in identifying and studying rare ghost orchids in Guanahacabibes National Park on the island’s westernmost tip.

Bryan Arnold, an assistant professor of biology and expert on vampire and pallid bats, will be working alongside his Cuban counterpart, Jose Manuel, during that time.

IC faculty and students have made two previous trips to Cuba, forged from a friendship built several years ago between Zettler and Mujica. But this trip will be capped by an important five-year agreement that will give both sides access to experts in the field.
And it places the Jacksonville school of about 1,000 students in some rarefied air, giving it a leg up in a country shut off for so long.

“When you have a signed collaboration agreement, you have to have relationships with people who matter,” said Barbara Farley, IC’s president who will be present for the ceremony. “You can’t have some vague hope that something will happen.

“We’re not starting from zero. Dr. Zettler and Dr. Arnold in particular working with Cuban researchers have paved the way for us to be early into this.”

Both institutions — the University of Pinar del Rio and Soroa Botanical Garden — are in Pinar del Rio, in the northwestern part of Cuba, known for its cigar-making.

The university has about 17,000 students and a medical school attached to it. Founded during World War II, the botanical garden specializes in orchids and ornamental plants and its library collection is considered to be the richest, most diverse and up-to-date in the country.

Zettler and Steven Gardner, a professor of modern languages at IC, met Mujica at a conference in Ecuador in 2012, prompting an invitation to an IC delegation to visit Cuba.
The visit was reciprocated by Mujica, who is with Cuba’s Ministry of Science ECOVIDA Research Center and affiliated with the two institutions in Pinar del Rio, this past summer when he spent a month with two IC students identifying rare ghost orchids, or white frog orchids, in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

The goal, said Arnold, is to have an ongoing relationship so that IC faculty and students can go to Cuba to conduct research and Cuban educators can come to the United States.
While the deal is groundbreaking because of the timing and because of IC’s size, Arnold said compacts “will be more common” in the future.

That research collaboration, he added, may begin in biological and environmental fields, but parties have expressed interest in broadening fields of study, including education.Farley said she always thought that relations between the two countries would normalize, though she admitted that the speed of the process surprised her.

“I think it’s extraordinary to be part of a developing relationship between the two countries,” said Farley. “We are on the ground floor when it comes to this (collaboration), but it was complicated to get to this place.

“It’s all new for these Cuban institutions. That’s where I commend the excellent work of Steven Gardner. He’s helped us navigated layers of complexity to get us where we are today.”

“We spent close to two years working to make this possible,” added Gardner. “We jumped through many hoops dealing with the U.S. end of it and the Cuban government.”

It’s also evident, said Zettler, how IC in the last decade has emphasized getting students out into world to work and to observe. Most of that travel has been formally done through IC’s BreakAways program, faculty-led trips done when the college isn’t in regular session.
In 2016, IC students will visit Greece and the Bahamas, in addition to a BreakAways trip to Cuba.

“One of the cornerstones of IC is experiential learning (learning through experience), that students aren’t just sitting in a classroom when they go abroad or when they do internships or research or service learning,” said Arnold.

While IC may not technically be a research institution, Zettler and Arnold are published in their respective academic fields. IC students doing orchid research, whether in Texas, Florida, Hawaii or Madagascar, are regularly mistaken for graduate students, said Zettler.
Justin Mably admitted that research wasn’t on his radar when he stepped onto the IC campus as freshman. Now a senior majoring in biology and part of the contingent to Cuba, Mably has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the preeminent researcher Mujica. And in Florida, Mujica literally stood on Mably’s shoulders to look for out-of-the-way ghost orchids.

If Mably was hesitant at first to go into research, “I had so many questions and research held the answers,” he admitted.

Mably often gets asked why the fuss over ghost orchids, whose blooms are favorites of poachers and the subject of the book “The Orchid Thief” and the movie “Adaptation.”
It’s their beauty to begin with, he said, but also the unknown qualities about them. Do they contain some unknown benefit or some cure for a disease?

“You can’t let all this go away,” said Mably. “Do you have to read an obituary to care about the life of a person?”

With this trip, Mably said he knows he’s standing on historic ground.

“The collaboration agreement in real terms is obviously a beautiful thing,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed to be put into these shoes.”Ten years from now if I run into Professor Zettler and IC is still sending students to Cuba, the fact that I was part of this will have been an honor.”

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