Student orchid researcher among 80 undergrad awardees at SACNAS conference

Student orchid researcher among 80 undergrad awardees at SACNAS conference

Student orchid researcher among 80 undergrad awardees at SACNAS conference

Michael Fernandez stands in front of his poster presentation on Guam’s native epiphytic orchids, which earned him one of 80 undergraduate awards at the SACNAS NDiSTEM Diversity Conference in October 2022 in Puerto Rico.
Michael Fernandez holds his undergraduate research presentation award in the Ecology/Environmental Biology category.

Of nearly 1,000 presentations given at the 2022 SACNAS NDiSTEM Conference — the largest multicultural and multidisciplinary STEM diversity event in the nation — UOG integrative biology major Michael Fernandez was recognized by the judges for his “standout” poster presentation on Guam’s native epiphytic orchids. He was one of 100 student awardees and one of 82 undergraduate awardees at the October 2022 conference in Puerto Rico.

Michael Fernandez
Fellow UOG students at the SACNAS Conference celebrate with Michael Fernandez on his award for his undergraduate poster presentation.
“The Guam crowd went crazy cheering him on,” said Associate Professor Cheryl Sangueza, one of the UOG faculty who attended and co-director of the NSF INCLUDES: SEAS Island Alliance undergraduate research mentorship program.

Fernandez presented on his research over the past three years under Professor of Horticulture Mari Marutani and the Western Pacific Tropical Research Center.

“Given how many of Guam’s orchids grow epiphytically on trees and how virtually all orchids are dependent on symbiotic fungi known as mycorrhizae,” he said, “unraveling the intertwined relationship between host tree, mycorrhizae, and orchid is essential in understanding orchid ecology and ultimately their conservation.”

The goal of his project was to document the host trees and mycorrhizal diversity in epiphytic orchids native to Guam. His study revealed that one of Guam’s most abundant orchids grows on a wide variety of native and non-native host trees and has a great diversity of mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal partners. However, Guam’s less common and threatened epiphytic orchids seem to associate mostly with native trees and with particular mycorrhizal groups.

“[…] Michael’s communication skills and command of the research topic were exemplary,” said Emily Pavlik, coordinator of student programs for the SACNAS conference in the notice of his award. “This letter recognizes the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice necessary for a student to standout from their fellow presenters.”

'I truly felt a sense of belonging in science'

As his first time attending the SACNAS NDiSTEM in person, Fernandez said sharing his work was a highlight.

“I made so many connections with mentor judges, professors, and students that attended my poster presentation,” he said. “[…] And when I did have the chance to connect with fellow orchid mycorrhizae people, Pacific Island researchers, or previous conference acquaintances, I truly felt a sense of belonging in science.”

For Fernandez, an opportunity to present is a chance to share more than just his findings. He said that in order to connect to your audience, it takes more than research.

“I always make it a point to not just highlight the findings of a study, but to immerse people in the journey […],” he said, “Being able to not only communicate, but guide and inspire people through a research story makes presenting a truly satisfying experience.”

This is the second SACNAS award Fernandez has won — following an award at the virtual conference in 2020 for his research presentation on creating natural paints from Pacific indigenous plants.

“I’ve found that, for me, actively immersing yourself in every step of the research process —through all the ups and downs — is the best prep you can get,” Fernandez said.

A positive footprint

Fernandez graduated in Fañomnåkan 2022 and continues to work under Marutani as a research associate in the Horticulture Lab. He plans to attend graduate school to study ecology, conservative biology, and evolution specific to Pacific Island ecosystems. He then wants to return to Guam to research more about the island’s biodiversity and to give back as a mentor and help build the next generation of STEM researchers on Guam.

Overall, the conference was attended by 30 UOG students with 11 presenting their research. The experience was a success for the entire UOG delegation, Sangueza said — not only for academic and research opportunities, but because the delegation left a positive footprint of Guam and UOG on a wide variety of professionals who are equally passionate about science.