IC students to continue funded orchid research in Florida


This summer, Illinois College students will continue field research at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge studying orchids in south Florida, including ongoing work with the rare Ghost Orchid.

Pictured: Students Adam Herdman ’18 and Connor Melton '18 research Ghost Orchid populations in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. 

Jiaqu (Jack) Lu ’21 and Michael LaRusso ’20 each received a $1,000 scholarship funded by the Naples Orchid Society, to stay at the Panther Refuge and complete research in July. They join a long list of IC students to complete research at the refuge, many of whom have continued work in the field in graduate programs around the country. The students will stay at the refuge free of charge.   

LaRusso will also travel to Cuba on a BreakAway trip this May as part of a larger group from IC, along with Dr. Lawrence Zettler, Hitchcock Professor of Biology, to learn a new surveying techniques with the help of the program’s Cuban counterpart and collaborator, Dr. Ernesto Mujica from Soroa Orchid Garden. The junior biology and environmental studies major said having access to these types of learning experiences through IC’s biology program was one of the main reasons he decided to attend the College.

“I hope to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a scientist through hands-on learning — taking the seemingly abstract concepts off the boards in the classrooms and applying them to real-life situations.
Michael LaRusso ’20, Biology and Environmental Studies Major

LaRusso is also aware of how the work he completes will contribute to his current field, impacting the conservation of orchids for generations. The ability to complete meaningful work as an undergraduate is one of the most exciting elements of the work for him. No matter the career path he decides on, LaRusso said he expects to gain valuable skills for his future such as the ability to collect, organize, and analyze data, photography, invasive species control, surveying, and technology use (such as GIS).

Nearby Hannah Baker ’21, of Webb City, Missouri, will be the first IC student to intern at the Naples Botanical Garden, where she will grow orchids from seed in their new laboratory. She will also assist the staff with the living orchid collection and give public tours. Due to the close proximity, she may also have the opportunity to assist with research at Panther Refuge.

To prepare for the opportunity, Baker has worked in Dr. Zettler's research lab on campus for the past year and traveled to Cuba over spring break to conduct research at the Soroa Botanic Garden. Through her experience she has learned the techniques and processes required to properly work with orchids. She credits Dr. Zettler with helping her through the process of applying for the internship and preparing her for the challenges she will face. Baker is optimistic  about the role her work will play in opening doors for IC students in the future. 

“I really want this to be a stepping stone for future collaborations between IC students and the Naples Botanical Garden,” she said. “I am most excited to help restore their collection of orchids in the wetland area at the garden and expand my knowledge on the research.”

Baker aspires to one day work in pathology, studying bodily tissues for diseases and forensic purposes. She looks forward to enhancing her lab abilities and gaining new skills during her internship that will be useful in the future. 

Dr. Zettler said he looks forward to IC students advancing the field with meaningful work over the summer. He hopes the group can connect with the large population of IC alumni, especially those with a background in biology, who are in Southwestern Florida.  

About Illinois College

Founded in 1829, Illinois College is a residential liberal arts college fostering academic excellence rooted in opportunities for experiential learning while preparing students for lifelong success. The college is located in Jacksonville, Illinois. With an enrollment of more than 1,000 students, the college offers over 50 undergraduate programs. In 1932, the society of Phi Beta Kappa established a chapter at Illinois College, and it remains one of only 11 in the state.

Illinois College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association.

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Media Contact Information
Emily Titsworth '19, Writer
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