On Hispanic Serving Institutions & Puerto Rico

Hispanics are the largest growing population group in the United States.

The number of Hispanic (and more broadly, Minority) Serving Institutions is on the rise and, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities, doesn’t appear to be slowing down.


Data from HACU

Yet Hispanic Serving Institutions receive “69 cents for every dollar going to all other colleges and universities annually, per student, from all federal funding sources” (HACU 2016).

Not only must we address challenges unique to different student groups, but we must do it for 70% of the going rate.

What we talk about even less is the number of tenure-track Hispanic faculty across US colleges and universities. I can count the number of ‘me’ in ecology on two hands.

All ecologists understand and value biodiversity. But when it comes to social diversity, our logic is seemingly dictated by our bias.

Puerto Rico is a unique case study. Institutions in Puerto Rico serve a nearly 100% Hispanic population (and its faculty are predominantly Hispanic too). That’s one barrier eliminated.

The average tuition at University of Puerto Rico for a Puerto Rican resident is ~$900/semester. That’s right. A Bachelor’s degree at UPR costs under $10,000 (assuming about 5 courses a semester for 5 years).

About 80% of our students receive the Pell grant, which means the financial burden of higher education is nearly eliminated.

What happens when you remove financial and social barriers for Hispanics on the pathway to a career in STEM?

UPR-Mayagüez is ranked number one among baccalaureate origin institutions that produce Hispanic doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering (followed by UPR Rio Piedras, University of California Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Florida; NAS 2011).

In other words, a Hispanic student graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from UPRM (with little to no debt) is more likely to go on to obtain a doctorate degree than Hispanic students graduating from other institutions. The numbers speak for themselves.

That is truly something to emulate.




On eliminating the GRE requirement

We know standardized test scores aren’t strong predictors of success.

So why do we still require them?

I have been a vocal advocate for eliminating the GRE requirement for our Master’s program. And here’s why.

When our Department began requiring the GRE in 2005, we saw a plummet in the number of applicants from both Puerto Rico and Latin America.


The GRE is a hard filter against low-income students and it perpetuates the continuing under-representation of minorities in graduate school.

In 2006 I took the GRE in San Jose, Costa Rica.

This involved an hour walk, a 2 hour boat ride, a 6 hour bus ride, an overnight stay in a sketchy hotel, a taxi ride to the wrong testing center, a frantic call to the U.S. using my last phone card minutes, a nearly fatal taxi ride to the right testing center. And a few minutes to breathe.

Not to mention the cost.

The test (and travel) cost me a month’s minimum wage work at a local hotel.

This experience is not just typical in Latin America. It’s common in the U.S .

The GRE currently offers a 50% fee reduction program for U.S. citizens and residents who can demonstrate financial need. But even with the reduction we’re still talking $100 for the General test and another $100 for a Subject test.

That’s not counting additional score reports. And let’s just not mention the cost of retaking tests.

Anything that stacks the cards against minorities is bullshit in my book. And I’m calling it on the GRE.

I’m not the first to say so either. 

Miller and Stassun (2014) note that “the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin color than of ability and ultimate success”.

I’m excited to say our Department has eliminated the GRE requirement for our Master’s program.

We are adopting evaluation methods that are based on other traits in order to recruit more diverse graduate students.

Instead of looking at a test score, we are scheduling in-depth interviews and opportunities to interact with prospective students at conferences (talk with me at ESA! and the Caribbean Biodiversity Congress in Santo Domingo!).

Students don’t fit into boxes and we need to recognize this. Because we all benefit from diversity.



Puerto Rican Vanilla

Vanilla is a tropical climbing orchid native to the Neotropics and the Caribbean. More than 50 species of vanilla exist but only three are used commercially: Vanilla planifolia (the most important commercially), Vanilla pompona (used for tobacco, perfumes, soap, and liquors), and Vanilla tahitensis (native to Tahiti).

Mexico’s Totonac are the first known cultivators of vanilla. When the Totonac were conquered by the Aztecs, they gifted vanilla to the Aztec kings in the same way gold and maize were gifted by other tribes.

Hernán Cortes later introduced vanilla to Europe in the 1500’s and in the 1800’s Thomas Jefferson popularized the flavor in the U.S. after enjoying vanilla ice cream in France. The French, in turn, introduced vanilla to its colonies, including Madagascar.

Today, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) and is cultivated globally. New markets and flavor profiles are emerging across the tropics.

But Puerto Rico doesn’t appear on the above map. The history of vanilla in Puerto Rico is intricately tied to the history of Puerto Rico itself.

In 1909, the U.S. Federal Experiment Station introduced commercial species of vanilla to Puerto Rico.


The Federal Experiment station (now known as USDA’s Tropical Agriculture Research Station or TARS) in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

By the 1930’s, the Station was a major research center for vanilla propagation, hybridization, maintenance, and harvest.

vanilla pr

This document outlined the adoption of vanilla as a supplement to tobacco, coffee, and bananas (Childers and Cibes 1948)

The 1930’s were a tumultuous time for both the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In the U.S., drought conditions exacerbated the economic impact of the Great Depression. In Puerto Rico, some of the strongest hurricanes on record destroyed agriculture, in part leading to economic collapse.

Jack Delano’s photographs (Library of Congress) capture the poverty and conditions in Puerto Rico during this era.

To stimulate economic development and employment, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1934 (later called the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration).

This program supported, among other projects, the development of commercial vanilleries in the mountains of Puerto Rico and TARS played a central role in helping farmers adopt vanilla as a minor agricultural enterprise.

vanilla pr girl

At the Cooperative of Vanilla Growers in Castaner, Puerto Rico. Photograph from Childers and Cibes 1948.

In 1947, however, Operation Bootstrap (Operación Manos a la Obra) was enacted under the Law of Industrial Incentives (Ley de Incentivos Industriales) which gave generous tax exemptions to industrial factories in Puerto Rico.

At first, people were hesitant to work in the factories, so large campaigns painted agricultural work as dirty to attract rural workers to textile industries.

And these campaigns worked. Agriculture was abandoned.

delano women sewing

J. Delano, Library of Congress

By 1950, financing for vanilla production ended and this tropical orchid became unattractive to maintain.

Puerto Rico, once entirely dependent on agriculture, is now almost entirely dependent on food imports.

Today, Puerto Rican vanilla extract can be found at specialty shops.


It’s synthetic.


How much would you pay for real vanilla beans from Puerto Rico?

The market price of vanilla beans is currently sitting at $200/kilogram up from $20/kilogram in 2010.

This surge has been fueled by drought in Mexico and Tahiti. By early picking and vacuum packing green, uncured vanilla in Madagascar (producing an inferior bean). And even by bean theft.

The price surge has also been fueled by increased demand from the “natural” foods movement. Large manufacturers are leaving synthetic vanillin behind.

Agricultural enterprises in Puerto Rico are predicted to grow over the next decade.

Maybe we will see Puerto Rican vanilla again.


Not Your Grandfather’s Ecology

Ecology is changing. This can be attributed to technology, creativity, and female grit.

Data and Literature: The Open Access Model

The way data is collected is changing. From Smartphone Apps to publicly available data sets. Open data means more types of people can participate in ecology. This is pivotal for ecologists with limited funding or mobility.

Another tool is Sci-Hub. Their mission statement says it all: “To remove all barriers in the way of science”. The DIY ecologist is also on the rise with help from organizations like PublicLab. Do you spend time writing a grant proposal with a 5% funding rate or do you just do the damn science already?

Funding: The Self-made

Science in the U.S. is witnessing one of the largest budget cuts in history. Low funding rates coupled with University overhead is fueling the popularity of crowd-funding sites like Experiment. This creates an entrepreneurial spirit akin to 18th century naturalists like Alfred Russell Wallace. His financial difficulties led to creative endeavors that funded his research. Self-made.

Productivity Obsession: Is there a limit to the speed of science?

The ongoing extinction of cubicle jobs attests to technological advancements that have changed how the world works. Jobs have been replaced by computers. In ecology, technological advancements have given rise to working smarter. This manifests in ironically lengthy blogs about time-management and productivity tools (like Pomodoro,  WunderList, If This Then That, GoogleDrive, the list goes on).

A Different Kind of Review

Related to the notion of faster science, a new form of review has evolved. The slogan of Axios Review is “Aim High, Publish Fast”. Just try it already.

Gender Equity: Slow but Steady

Change can also happen slowly. Especially when it’s related to deeply embedded social and cultural norms. Despite the horrors of being a female in ecology our numbers are (slowly) rising. I idolize every senior female in ecology and I can’t imagine the enormous amount of bullshit they had to endure to get to where they are, because I’m still enduring an enormous amount of bullshit to get here, to exist here. Shifting baseline, hopefully.

Collaborations: Going Global

Europe was instrumental in the development of ecology in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century, that center shifted to the United States. Now, China is a rising force. The new ecology is collaborative in nature and, more importantly, encompasses a greater portion of the global non-white community. This is good news because diversity begets creativity.


Map of scientific collaboration (O.H. Beauchesne)

Despite these advances, I wonder whether ecologists are taking full advantage of the technological tools and entrepreneur spirit that is transforming the world. Resistance to change is natural, but so is change itself.

The days of the Old Boys Club are numbered.



Rice, Beans, and Other Things: Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Affair

Puerto Rico is at a political, economic, social, and agricultural crossroads. Exciting things can happen at crossroads.

The island’s $73 billion debt trumps Detroit’s ($18bn) but bankruptcy is not an option.

Already high taxes have increased and massive budget cuts have been proposed to education, agriculture, and other public services. Protests and demonstrations are common.

Many people are simply leaving (to the tune of 50,000 people a year). NPR has a nice write-up of some of the complexities.

Grafiti art on University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus

Graffiti art on University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus.

In hand with Puerto Rico’s debt is an increase in obesity, especially among low-income families.

I’ve run across a lot of statistics but actual studies seem hard to find beyond the CDC website. The bottom line is, as it is in many places, it’s cheaper and easier to eat out.

Which brings us to the trifecta. Food. In the 1950’s agriculture comprised ~80% of Puerto Rico’s land cover. Today, it’s less than 20%. This means that most fresh produce found at the local grocery store is, well, not so fresh and not so local.

A dependence on imported food has major implications for food security and well-being.

Crisis often finds creativity, however, and we are slowly seeing a strengthening of the agricultural sector. Products del pais are not only tastier but also support a bottom-up economy.

Plant communities in supermercados are a mix of local and imported species.

Plant communities in supermercados are a mix of local and imported species.

So if you’re in Puerto Rico, where can you find the highest diversity of local plant species?

I asked my Ecology course this question in the context of land use and ecological surveys and the seeming dichotomy between agriculture and forest cover.

Andrea Manzano, an undergraduate in the course, conducted a detailed study by sampling grocery stores in Western Puerto Rico.

She included both small businesses (colmados and Plazas del Mercado) and large grocery store chains.

Andrea surveyed all fresh plant products available and recorded their origin. Even though plant populations in grocery stores are dynamic, these data likely represent typical conditions in grocery stores across Puerto Rico.

Three Interesting Patterns:

1. Small businesses tend to have fewer plant species. However, small businesses support more locally grown produce.

Small business Puerto Rico

2. Rincon, a small town on the west coast, ranks high on the availability of locally grown plant products.

3. The majority of species are imported from the Americas. Others like onions, kiwi, garlic, ginger, and tamarind travel much longer distances before arriving at the grocery store. (Food art: CreativeCommons).

Andrea’s work highlights the growing demand and need for local produce. For more details check out the Department of Agriculture (Departamento de Agricultura).


Thanks to Andrea for letting me highlight her work that  she presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at UPRM. Exito!


ACG research made the cover

My recent article (and photo taken on Volcan Cacao) made the cover of Journal of Vegetation Science in a special issue about plant functional diversity. This article highlights the bulk of my PhD research, most of which I spent running around in ACG backyard setting up vegetation plots and collecting plant traits everywhere from coastal mangroves to cloud forest volcanoes.


At the heart of this study, I was interested in testing a simple idea in ecology: at high latitudes and elevations the limiting factor for plant life includes abiotic conditions like cold temperatures whereas at low latitudes and elevations the limiting factor for plant life includes increased competition between plants for nutrients, light, and water. To test this idea we can compare plant functional diversity across elevational and latitudinal gradients.

    Alexander von Humboldt was among the first naturalist to propose the idea that high latitude and elevational plant communities are structured by abiotic factors whereas tropical and low elevational communities are structured by biotic factors. Foto from von Humboldt (1817).

Alexander von Humboldt was among the first naturalist to propose the idea that high latitude and elevational plant communities are structured by abiotic factors whereas tropical and low elevational communities are structured by biotic factors. Foto from von Humboldt (1817).

Functional diversity can be defined as the different types of ecological strategies within a community. For example, plants can grow along a spectrum from very fast (Cochlospermum vitifolium; poroporo) to very slow (Hymenea courbaril; nispero). But how can we quantify functional strategies within plants? Fortunately, several leaf traits reveal a plant’s ecological strategy. Both leaf area and leaf mass provide an index of where a plant species falls along the spectrum of fast to slow growth.

A range of functional strategies are shown and can be measured by calculating specific leaf area which is fresh leaf area divided by dry leaf mass. Low specific leaf area indicates a plant that tends to have high growth and photosynthetic rates.

Functional strategies can be measured by calculating specific leaf area which is fresh leaf area divided by dry leaf mass. A plant with low specific leaf area indicates slow growth and photosynthesis rates.

By measuring these leaf traits in plant communities across elevational gradients (like the one in ACG) we can start to develop a picture of how plant communities are functioning which, in turn, can reveal the main factors limiting plant functional diversity.

Key elements in the functional trait assembly line: sisters Jess and Gloria.

Key elements in the functional trait assembly line: sisters Jess and Gloria.

In this study, I showed that in the tropics functional diversity tends to be higher than expected at low elevations. In contrast, at high elevations and at high latitudes functional diversity tends to be lower than expected. These signatures are thought to reflect biotic and abiotic limitations, respectively, on plant communities.

So what does this mean in ACG? Well, for starters, tropical dry forests appear to have some of the highest functional diversity compared to other wetter habitats. Is that because competition for water is more intense here? Maybe. But I am beginning to think that it may have more to do with the higher topographical heterogeneity and mosaic of forest types within tropical dry forests. The contrast between mesic and xeric forests allows very different species to coexist within the tropical dry forest habitat. I explore this idea in a recent book chapter too and in ongoing projects with UNAM collaborators Angelina Martínez-Yrízar and Alberto Búrquez. Questions? Contact me!

The ridge at 680 m elevation overlooks a vast serpentine valley below, perfect for light trapping moths.

Tropical dry forests are often characterized by complex topography which strongly influences soil water availability and thus plant communities.