Some visitors to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden like to wander among the blooming orchids. Others choose to attend the International Mango Festival or listen to the classical music concerts.
Yet hidden beyond the garden’s towering palms and cycads advancements in science are taking root.
And now they can flourish even more.
Fairchild said it has received a $4 million gift from scientist James A. Kushlan to create the Kushlan Tropical Science Institute — the latest piece of $24 million Fairchild has raised in science funding in less than two years.
“We will have an institute that will allow a terrific community of tropical scientists to have a place to get together and do tropical research,” said Bruce Greer, chairman of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s board of trustees. “And equally as important, those scientists are going to give children an opportunity to study science and stay in Miami.”
The gift comes less than two months before Fairchild will unveil its new DiMare Science Village, which opens Nov. 30 in Coral Gables. Its aim is to create a top venue for Fairchild’s scientific research, conservation science projects, and undergraduate and graduate science education programs.
The three-story 25,000-square-foot Science Village will have labs and classrooms in the Joyce and M. Anthony Burns Building, the Dr. Jane Hsiao Laboratories, the Jason Vollmer Butterfly Laboratory and the Clinton Family Conservatory.
Kushlan, who grew up in Miami and has a Ph.D in ornithology from the University of Miami, is widely recognized for his expertise in the biology and conservation of water birds and wetlands. He has written several books and more than 200 professional papers and was formerly director of the Department of Interior’s wildlife research center near Washington, D.C., and chair and professor of biology at the University of Mississippi, among other positions. Kushlan is also the sponsor of Fairchild’s bird conservation initiative.
“This is part of a much larger picture of support for science centered at Fairchild,” said Kushlan, 65, who now lives in Key Biscayne. “It’s not just me. I’ve got a piece, and being a scientist, I can help encourage the Science Center.”
Fairchild’s five-year vision is to support science education efforts by sponsoring 10 Ph.D scientists, 20 Ph.D students and 40 undergraduate research students from universities including the University of Miami, Florida International University and the University of Florida.
“It’s a place where scientists — professors from various institutions and universities — can come together to collaborate, communicate and cooperate on tropical science,” Kushlan said. “What we hope is to enhance the attractiveness of South Florida to scientists and their students and the funding agencies.”
Kushlan, who also helped start Fairchild’s Bird Festival, said his overall goal is to encourage conservation research and education in South Florida, especially about birds and the Everglades.
“I see this as a beginning of something even larger,” said Kushlan, who is also funding a new position, the Kushlan chair in waterbird biology and conservation, at the University of Miami, as well as helping create a new waterbird exhibit as part of Zoo Miami’s upcoming Florida: Mission Everglades. He also serves on the boards of the Everglades Foundation and HistoryMiami.
Fairchild, the first cultural organization founded in Miami-Dade County nearly 75 years ago, has 45,000 members. With the world’s largest tropical collection of palms and cycads, Greer said the Coral Gables garden is considered one of the two greatest botanic gardens in the world, along with Singapore Botanic Gardens.
What’s more, Greer likens Fairchild to 15th century Florence, Italy, where residents could walk through the streets and stumble across amazing art and music.
It is that diversity of offerings at Fairchild — blossoming flowers, concerts, Botero sculptures — that has helped attract visitors and millions of dollars in donations, he said, at a time when other arts organizations are struggling to stay afloat.
“Miami is exploding as an arts scene and as a science scene,” Greer said. “Most people have to seek it out — go downtown to see a concert. What Fairchild is is a gateway for individuals to experience culture in a much more relaxed atmosphere. It’s a gateway for a lot of people, including children, to learn about things they weren’t seeking.”
Similarly, the Kushlan Tropical Science Institute, he said, will further scientific advancements by allowing professors and graduate students to interact.
“Like Florence,” Greer said, “when you bring world-class people together they influence each other and influence the entire community.”