From Palms To Sea-Level Rise: This Fort Lauderdale Research Center Just Got New Leadership
Jack Rechcigl's vision for the future of the urban-environmental center is to make it a world-renowned place for visiting researchers to come focus their energy on issues ranging from grass to palm disease to everything in between.
Algae, palm tree diseases, misinformation and skepticism about science — these are just some of the problems the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is trying to solve across the state.
The university's institute has an outpost office in each one of Florida's 67 counties. It also has a dozen research and education centers.
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Recently, WLRN spoke with the new director of the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, Jack Rechcigl.
Rechcigl also directs the UF IFAS Gulf Coast Research Center, near Tampa, and has been acting director of the Fort Lauderdale center during the pandemic, after his predecessor retired.
He talked about how his three-decade career has prepared him for tackling today's urban environmental challenges in South Florida.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
RECHCIGL: I have spent my whole career working with our producers and our agricultural industries, trying to help them stay competitive in a global environment, and they've faced numerous challenges.
It becomes more and more difficult.
People are even questioning scientists and the truth about what is true and what is not true.
WLRN: Does it make it harder to do your job when you still have people arguing "sea level rise won't affect me?"
It does make it more difficult. And it makes it tough on the scientists because they feel like it's important for them to take it scientifically, and kind of get up on their soapbox and try to educate people. And there's a lot of people, as you know, [who] don't even believe it exists.
When I first started out as a scientist, 34 years ago, we were actually discouraged from kind of voicing our opinion based on the science that we were working on and what we had found out. And I think today we're feeling like it's important to educate everybody, and particularly in the Fort Lauderdale area, on what impact sea rise can truly have upon them, and society overall.
You started your career studying soil. How does your base knowledge, or previous research, all come together to help you lead these other areas of research now, in Fort Lauderdale?
I spent a good part of my career working on Lake Okeechobee, which is not that far from here either. It's interesting that even though now I'm at Fort Lauderdale, we still have scientists that are working on these algal issues, which is very similar to what I started my career on.
At my Tampa Research and Education Center, the Gulf Coast Research Center, we focus more on traditional agricultural issues. For example, we have a tomato breeding program. Now, at the Fort Lauderdale Center — which is focused on urban issues — more specifically, we work on environmental horticulture plants and palms, palm trees. You know, they're grown all throughout Florida.
And we have a lot of issues with palm trees, unfortunately, in Florida with diseases and insect problems. So we're working on ways to try to save those palms from dying.
What are some of the issues palms face and why is it so important to study them?
As you know, we all like beautiful palms in our yards, in our parks where we work. But unfortunately, over the past number of years, we've had serious disease issues that are killing our palms. And a lot of times these diseases and viruses are actually transmitted by insects. So the insects have the ability to carry that virus or disease from palm-to-palm.
So it's important that we have scientists that have expertise in diseases and viruses. And then it's also important we have scientists that specialize on insect control, because those two types of scientists need to work together.
How does the work that's done at the center in Fort Lauderdale impact the lives of people living in Fort Lauderdale, whether they know it or not?
It's so close to the Everglades where we have very sensitive ecological areas. And so it basically allows our scientists to work on the urban rural interface, which is very fragile. And we have to be very sensitive to that.
And we have beautiful beaches here. And so we have to do whatever we can to take care of those as well. We want the waters to be beautiful. We want to continue to have healthy fish for fishing.
And so that's really a unique thing about Fort Lauderdale, and it allows our scientists a unique opportunity to try to solve those problems that help people that live in South Florida.