Dr. Tom Fernandez was first exposed to horticulture as a 10-year old working in his grandparent’s small foliage greenhouse. His interest in plants grew during the 8 years he worked there before heading to University of Florida for his B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture. There, he researched cold protection methods for fruit crops, specifically the effects of cold protection methods on citrus fruit physiology. From there, he continued his education as a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University where he researched drought tolerance in apple root stock. After graduating from the Ph.D. program, he earned a faculty position at Louisiana State University, before heading to Clemson University for four years. Then, in 1999, he moved back to MSU as a new faculty member.
Before becoming a faculty member at multiple institutes, his research was mostly on fruit crops, but he then made a transition to ornamental crop research. As a new faculty member at MSU, he focused on how water management practices affect nursery plant production and the effects on the surrounding environment. Specifically, he was interested in reducing water-use, as well as pesticide and nutrient run-off by altering irrigation methods. He began by looking at common irrigation practices that growers use, and found that by changing practices, 30-70% less water can be used to produce a quality crop. Furthermore, reducing the amount of water applied also reduced the amount of fertilizer and pesticide run-off. More recently, he has researched where and how pesticides move with run-off water and by percolating through the soil. To remediate pesticide movement, he has looked at different bioreactors combined with expanded aggregates that can remove chemicals that are harmful to the environment. By using certain bioreactors, elements like nitrogen and phosphorous can be decreased to levels that are undetectable.
Finally, he has looked at methods to capture and recycle unused water. Besides research, Tom is heavily involved in teaching undergraduate courses in the Departmental of Horticulture. Currently, he teaches nursery management and plant identification classes. He also has an extension component where he works with Michigan nursery operations. Tom plans to continue research on irrigation practices and how to improve scheduling irrigation in nurseries. After his academic career, he hopes to move some place warm and near the ocean so he can enjoy his hobby of sailing. Some advice he would offer to graduate students is to not limit yourself to work only on a crop or project you worked on during graduate school. Use the skills you learned and be open to all opportunities.