VERO BEACH — For Jorge Rey, science has been a lifelong passion. At the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), he is director of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory (FMEL), a training and research center in Vero Beach, devoted to finding solutions to mosquito-borne diseases and more.
Rey leads a team of faculty, students, fellows and visiting scientists who study the biology and control of biting insects that are pests or transmit diseases like Zika and West Nile virus. Scientists at FMEL remain in close contact with Florida’s more than 65 mosquito control districts, providing training, solutions and information on topics including mosquito identification, mosquito-borne diseases, integrated mosquito management and more.
Rey offers a glimpse at his life, FMEL and his Hispanic heritage.
Rey was born in Havana, Cuba, who at the age of 11 was one of more than 14,000 young children sent to the United States as part of the “Pedro Pan” exodus.
“My father was an attorney and my mother a homemaker. I have one older brother. My grandparents came to Cuba from the León region of Spain. At age 11, I was sent out of Cuba as one of the ‘Pedro Pan kids.’ At that time, many Cuban children my age were sent by parents out of Cuba to prevent the Cuban government from sending us to Russia or China or to ‘special government camps’ for indoctrination. I lived in an orphanage and then in a couple of foster homes in Miami for a couple of years until my parents were able to leave Cuba and reunite with me. Our family then moved to Puerto Rico, where I lived through the high school years.
While Rey is responsible for facilitating research, teaching and Extension productivity by staff at FMEL, the work that is produced at the center has global impact.
“I am ultimately responsible for all aspects of running a modern research and education facility including fiscal, personnel, physical plant and mentoring,” said Rey. “Our mission is to conduct cutting-edge research in medical entomology that includes vectors, pathogens and their interactions and management utilizing a global and environmentally sound approach.”
The team further extends and applies the resulting knowledge and innovations locally and globally for the benefit of Florida and the rest of the world.
“We blend faculty expertise and insights into an effective program for training and instruction of current and future researchers, teachers, public health workers and the public,” Rey said. “We strive to be a globally recognized medical entomology and public health research and education center serving as a nexus of international collaborative research on vector-borne diseases.”
Science was a natural fit for Rey.
“I have loved science since I was very young,” he said.
He received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Miami, followed by a master’s and doctorate degrees in biological sciences from Florida State University (FSU).
In 1979, he arrived at FMEL as a wetlands biologist. He studied the ecology of the Indian River Lagoon, its associated coastal wetlands and mangrove forests. Rey was also charged with developing wetlands management strategies that would minimize mosquito production with the least environmental impacts to these valuable habitats.
“One result of this work was the development of management plans, such as the Rotational Impoundment Management, that significantly reduced mosquito production without the use of potentially harmful chemicals to the environment. These plans are still in use today,” he said.
Being surrounded by cutting-edge research on mosquitoes and on the pathogens they transmit fueled Rey’s research interests.
“I have conducted research on landscape factors that influence the distribution of mosquitoes; studies on mosquito production from nutrient rich aquatic systems, constructed wetlands and urban habitats; biological control of mosquitoes and others,” he said. “At FMEL, we have also conducted studies on the biology of mosquitoes that inhabit natural and artificial water-holding containers. These include extensive field studies on container habitat use, of oviposition behavior and interactions among container mosquitoes.”
As director and mentor to students across all age groups, Rey encourages future students to become scientists.
“This is an extremely rewarding field where researchers and educators are still needed throughout the world.”
“Music, music and more music. Latin music moves you like no other,” said Rey.
The best way to celebrate the Hispanic heritage is to travel and experience as many different Hispanic cultures as possible, Rey said.
“Hispanics are wonderfully diverse, and in some cases very different from one another. That is why common terms such as Hispanic, Latino, Latin and similar terms have actually very little meaning beyond describing linguistic similarities or common broad geographic origins. I find celebration of different cultures and ethnicities inspirational, regardless of which ones they are.”