Robin Marquez

Robin Marquez

VC student discovers a passion for research, wins a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

Robin Marquez has big dreams – and this Valencia College grad is well on his way to achieving them.

— by Linda Shrieves

Robin, 28, who graduated from Valencia College in December 2023, recently won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for his undergraduate research in botany and entomology – is now studying entomology at the University of Central Florida and plans to eventually earn a doctorate in entomology (the study of insects).

This may seem like a normal path for a high-achieving student. But it wasn’t that long ago that Robin thought his college career was over – with a GPA beyond repair.

What happened next is the story of many Valencia College students, who come to Valencia to rebuild even a portion of their dream, and discover that they’re capable of much more.

Robin’s journey to college started in Boca Raton, where Robin graduated with honors and earned a full ride to the University of South Florida. But during his freshman year at USF, he began to suffer from a series of debilitating health challenges. At first, he pursued a medical withdrawal, but after a few semesters, when he didn’t have the mental energy to keep going through the red tape, his poor grades piled up – and he was academically dismissed from the university.

That was a devastating blow to a former honors student and someone who’d once dreamed of becoming a doctor. But by 2019, Robin had relocated to Orlando and began by taking a couple of classes at Valencia College. When the pandemic hit, Robin took more time off, but he returned to campus in 2021 and soon discovered his love for horticulture.

By his second semester in the Plant Science and Agricultural Technology program, faculty members started noticing that Robin exceled at completing research papers and presentations.  Program Director Javier Garces suggested Robin pursue a doctorate in plant medicine at the University of Florida, a goal that was so high that it intimidated Robin.

“I didn’t think that was ever a possibility for me. I didn’t envision myself in that,” says Robin. “But I like to keep an open mind. And I was so honored for a professor to reach out to me. Here I was, still with a low GPA… It felt like too high a bar for me at the time.”

Another plant science professor, Fabiano Isenhour, suggested a different route. Because Robin  demonstrated a strong ability to distill information from plant science literature as a student in his botany class Isenhour said he should consider conducting undergraduate research – and he then connected Robin with Dr. Melonie Sexton, who operates Valencia’s undergraduate research team.


Robin Marquez inspects wasps living in the home garden of his mentor, Phyllis Hall.


Around the same time, Robin had been earning horticultural certifications (which he hoped would make him more employable) and found one especially intriguing: Florida-Friendly LandscapingThe goal of Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ is to focus on sustainable practice: its goals include reducing water consumption and supporting native plants and wildlife.

Intrigued by this concept of supporting native wildlife in urban environments, Robin applied to the Audubon Florida Conservation Leadership Initiative – where his mentor, Phyllis Hall had once been a nontraditional student herself. And while Robin was just trying to carve out a job as a plant grower, Hall urged him to aim higher and consider research opportunities.

“I thought maybe this could be my next step, to think about where I want to go,” says Robin.

Inspired, but still uncertain how others might view his checkered academic history, Robin

applied to the UCF Research Experience for Undergraduates Site: Conservation, Restoration, and Communication, a program funded by the National Science Foundation. In the essay, Robin addressed his health issues.  “I hoped they would overlook my academic history in favor of my ambitions,” he says. “In that essay, I gave myself permission to dream big and put it in writing.” To his delight, he was selected to participate in a summer research program in 2022.

Working with UCF professor Patrick Bohlen, Robin and the rest of the team worked with the Sunbridge housing development district in St. Cloud, where the developers were trying to design a native plant landscape that would perform well but also wouldn’t use a lot of water. Robin was asked to focus on how well the native plant landscape supported pollinators, including bees and wasps and butterflies.  He spent his days counting bees , and even got the chance to present his work at multiple conferences.

“It felt like I was living the dream,” he says. “I found what I really wanted to do.”

Inspired by this experience, Robin began trying to find more research projects.

“I was totally hooked on pollinator conservation,” he says. “So I thought, ‘how do I keep this going?’ I was looking at what I could do at Valencia… and I stumbled onto the VECTOR program,” which stands for Valencia Engaging for Completion Through Opportunities in Research.

“I was so thankful to be accepted into VECTOR,” Robin recalls. “I had reached out to other programs like LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation), but my GPA was still such a limiting factor. So when I was accepted to the VECTOR program, it felt like someone was giving me a chance.  It really helped to boost my morale.”

Under the tutelage of Valencia College professors Jim Adamski and Rita Luther, Robin began an independent research project, studying the bacteria in the Wekiva River. In addition to collecting water samples and characterizing bacteria colony morphology, he planned to run gene-sequencing tests to determine if sewage bacteria is  from animals or septic tank runoff. But the testing supplies didn’t arrive before Robin graduated, so two Valencia College students are now carrying on the work which makes Robin happy. “I view it as leaving a mark on undergraduate research at Valencia,” Robin asserts. “Considering community colleges don’t have traditional lab settings with established Principal Investigators, it’s exciting to have pioneered a longer-term project that allows other students to gain valuable research experience.”

Now at UCF, Robin is majoring in biology and dealing with the size and scope of UCF.

“I’m in a genetics class with 500 students, but I already know the professor from the UCF research experience, so I feel comfortable,” he says.

He’s also working as a pollinator ecology research assistant for the UCF Urban Ecology Lab and serving as assistant curator for the UCF Collection of Arthropods (commonly known as the "Bug Closet"), and completing research-based coursework with the Fedorka lab.

“I’m a UCF McNair scholar here, which is amazing,” he says. “I’m enmeshed in this research community of students; all the undergraduate research staff are familiar faces from the REU. My transfer to UCF  feels like a homecoming of sorts.”

In a surprising twist, Robin is helping a former Valencia College grad, Dr. Andrea Ayala of Yale University, who’s conducting a study of climate change and pathogenic Vibrio bacteria in the gut microbiome of mottled ducks.

And this summer, Robin will be heading to Washington, D.C., to work at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where he’ll be studying the species diversity of tiny wasps from Central and South America.

It’s been quite a journey, Robin says, and he almost can’t believe it.

“I’m very thankful to be here,” he says. “I feel like I’m dreaming so much bigger and aiming so much higher… To have a sense of direction that I’m passionate about, to be viewed for my effort rather than my GPA, and to feel like I’m part of the broader scientific community.”

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