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Volume 105, Issue 1 e2118
Resolutions of Respect
Open Access

Resolution of Respect Michel Faife Cabrera (1978–2021)

Peter Feinsinger

Peter Feinsinger

Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, 617 S. Beaver, Flagstaff, 86011 Arizona, United States

Facultad de Ciencias Naturales e Instituto M. Lillo, Centro de Estudios y Aplicación del Ciclo de Indagación, Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Ayacucho 491, San Miguel de Tucumán, Tucumán, Argentina

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Iralys Rodríguez

Iralys Rodríguez

Facultad de Ciencias Naturales e Instituto M. Lillo, Centro de Estudios y Aplicación del Ciclo de Indagación, Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Ayacucho 491, San Miguel de Tucumán, Tucumán, Argentina

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Enma Torres-Roche

Enma Torres-Roche

Jardín Botánico Nacional, Universidad de la Habana, Carretera del Rocío kilómetro 3 1/2, La Habana, 19230 Cuba

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Jessica Gurevitch

Corresponding Author

Jessica Gurevitch

Department of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, 11794 NY, United States

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First published: 01 December 2023

[Correction added on 2 January 2024: “Michl” in the article title has been corrected to read “Michel” in this version.].

On August 14, 2021, the 42-year-old Cuban botanist, plant ecologist, and conservation biologist Michel Faife Cabrera died from complications of pneumonia following Covid. His sudden death came as a great shock to his many friends, students, and colleagues not only in Cuba but also in North and South America and Europe. Just 6 weeks earlier, Michel had given an outstanding, inspiring, and animated Zoom presentation in which he outlined his ambitious plans for continuing and expanding capacity building inside and outside of postpandemic academia. The enthusiastic audience, the largest ever recorded in that series of talks, came from all over Latin America.

Michel touched many lives in Cuba as a university professor, co-founder of the third undergraduate biology major in Cuba (the first in the center of the country), and co-founder of the country's first master's program in conservation biology, where he served as a coordinator for a year. He had international connections to many other scientists, reaching out to others with questions, data, observations, and friendship. He also touched just as many lives outside of formal academia—lives of schoolteachers and schoolchildren, park guards, peasant farmers, nature guides, museum guides, and many others. Michel had a great sense of humor and a tremendous passion for the biodiversity of his native country—to understand it, to spread his appreciation for the treasures of Cuban ecological systems, and to protect them. His loss leaves a gaping hole in university education and field research in conservation biology, plant ecology, and the ecology of plant-pollinator interactions in Cuba. Repairing that hole will be a tremendous challenge. The gaping hole that his absence leaves in building capacity in autonomous environmental science across Cuba, outside of academia, may prove to be impossible to fill.

Michel grew up in the province of Villa Clara, in central Cuba. Upon entering the career in biology at the Universidad de La Habana, Michel quickly took advantage of every opportunity to do field work, studying nesting sea turtles, and biodiversity of various groups in natural areas and semi-natural landscapes in the west of Cuba, participating in the selection of management guidelines for biodiversity conservation in the Sabana Camagüey ecosystem in central Cuba, and many other themes (Photo 1). In his sophomore year, the faculty placed him in a select group of honor students. His undergraduate thesis, derived from the work in the Sabana Camagüey project, dealt with the coastal vegetation complex on Cayo Santa María, Villa Clara. Michel graduated in 2002 with the Cuban equivalent of summa cum laude and was also awarded the prize of “most integrated student” for his great diversity of extracurricular activities.

Details are in the caption following the image
Conducting field research in central Cuba.

Photo credit: Melissa García.

Upon graduating from the University of La Habana, Michel returned to the Botanical Garden of Villa Clara, where he devoted himself to the working partnership between that institution and the Center for Environmental Studies and Services of the provincial government (Photo 2). His work involved field monitoring of subjects ranging from bird and plant populations to water quality and wastewater treatment. In 2004, he joined the agronomy faculty of the Universidad Central de Las Villas “Marta Abreu” and began teaching classes in ecology and botany. In 2006, thanks to the support of colleagues and an enlightened administration, he co-founded the biology department and major, where he continued as a professor and then full professor until his death.

Details are in the caption following the image
Michel in the botanical garden of Villa Clara, central Cuba.

Photo credit: Arnoldo Toledo.

Michel's postgraduate education included three degrees. In 2008, he received a master's degree in botany from the National Botanical Garden in La Habana. In 2011, he traveled to Spain for advanced studies, receiving a master's degree in Terrestrial Ecosystems, Sustainable Use, and Environmental Implications from the Universidad de Vigo, Spain. He was awarded a doctorate in biological sciences in 2014 from the same university, after which he returned to Cuba to continue his research and to develop an extensive teaching and outreach program.

In 2014, at a congress on the conservation of biological diversity in Cuba, Michael presented a talk on “Master's Program in Biodiversity Conservation: A New Proposal for Training Professionals.” The novel program, the first in Cuba, was—and remains—housed in the agronomy faculty of his university. Michel served as the head of the program's academic committee through the first wave of students and remained on the committee until August 2021. He also served as the program's coordinator for a year.

In spite of the tremendous investment of time and effort devoted to proposing and helping to develop two novel degree programs, Michel continued to spend as much time in the field as possible, now often accompanied by the many charged-up students who took his courses or whose theses he directed (nine undergraduate theses, five master's theses, and one doctorate thesis; Photo 3). As always, the research was diverse: restoration ecology, introduced species whether very invasive or not so much, conservation of endangered native vascular plants, serpentine vegetation, seed germination of wild plants, the ecology of plant–pollinator interactions, reproductive ecology of plants, and many other topics in botany and ecology. He was involved with and active in the international organization Planta! in Cuba, including botanical discovery, teaching, and outreach. He also succeeded in publishing 24 papers, almost all with students as co-authors or first authors. Many papers came out in Cuban journals, more easily accessible than foreign journals to Cuban students, while others came out in Plant Biology, Systematic Botany, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, Journal of Plant Research, Plant Biosystems, Animal Conservation, and the Revista Ibérica de Aracnología. From 2006 on, no relevant scientific meeting or congress took place in Cuba without at least one presentation by Michel and at least one by his students. Michel accomplished all of this while facing severe limitations on access to travel, supplies and equipment, the Internet, and international journals, working throughout his career under very limited personal and institutional financial restraints.

Details are in the caption following the image
Michel with students on a field trip.

Photo credit: Arnoldo Toledo.

Other than those whose theses Michel directed, from where did all those students come? His courses. In 2004–2006, still on the agronomy faculty, Michel twice taught ecology and botany. When the biology major opened, Michel taught ecology and plant systematics every year, population ecology three times, and botany (2006–2007) or plant systematics (from 2008 on; Photo 4). In the master's program, each year from 2014 on, he taught one course in ecological interactions and another in population and community ecology.

Details are in the caption following the image
Michel and students in his course on field research design.

Photo credit: Maydiel Cañizares.

Neither Michel's research nor his teaching went unrecognized. The prizes awarded to Michel include:
  • 2007, 2013. National workshop on ecology and the environment. Awards for best presentation.
  • 2008, 2014, 2020. Awards from the Cuban Academy of Sciences, Villa Clara province, for outstanding research.
  • 2012. Rector's award for the year's best scientific paper published in the journal “Revista Centro Agrícola.”
  • 2017. Rector's award for 12 years of outstanding academic, scientific, and cultural support to the university.
  • 2018 Ecological Society of America, Whittaker Award for outstanding ecological work by a scientist from a developing country to travel to the Annual Meeting (Michel tried hard to attend, but due to the severely restrictive policies of the U.S. government, he was unable to obtain a visa).
  • 2021. Rector's award for research results with the greatest scientific impact on the natural and exact sciences.
  • 2022. Award from the Cuban Academy of Sciences, national level, for outstanding research.
The scientific societies of which Michel was a member include
  • Asociación Española de Ecología Terrestre
  • Ecological Society of America
  • Grupo Cubano de Restauración Ecológica
  • International Association for Vegetation Science
  • Red Iberoamericana y del Caribe de Restauración Ecológica
  • Sociedad Cubana de Botánica
  • Sociedad Cubana de Zoología
  • Sociedad Mesoamericana para la Biología y la Conservación
  • Society for Conservation Biology
From 2004 on, in the midst of his fieldwork, teaching, mentoring, and building academic programs in ecology and conservation at his university, Michel never passed up an opportunity to learn new approaches. He attended workshops, whenever possible, or took courses on bird banding, molecular phylogeny, scientific communication, techniques of extraction and purification of plant DNA, restoration ecology, Latin for taxonomists, wildlife management, morphology of terrestrial gastropods, multivariate statistics, meta-analysis, and, in 2006, the design of field studies in ecology, conservation biology, and related fields. In the last, an intensive 1-month course, Michel met Peter Feinsinger and, later, Iralys Ventosa. The three became close friends and remained in frequent contact. Michel co-taught several courses and workshops with Feinsinger and Ventosa, workshops oriented toward the publics somewhat or very different from university students. He quickly became a key figure, eventually the key figure, in teaching the research design course for field ecologists across Cuba (see below). He also gave workshops and courses, however, for other publics. The following are some of the events that Michel facilitated or co-facilitated outside of the “normal” curriculum of his university.
  • Courses on the research design of field studies in ecology and conservation biology: 2007 (to colleagues on the university faculty), 2013–2018 (to a total of over 100 university students and faculty from Cuba's three biology programs), 2014 (as an optional course in the biology major of the Universidad Central de Las Villas “Marta Abreu”), 2018 (as Invited Professor of Design of Field Research, in the master's program of the National Botanical Garden, La Habana.
  • Workshops on “trails and tours of inquiry” for the general public: 2007 (Parque Nacional de la Ciénaga de Zapata), 2014 (Habana Vieja, in the program “Rutas y Andares” of the Office of the Historian of La Habana), 2016 (Paisaje Natural Protegido Topes de Collantes), 2016–2018 in the field school of Planta! for student volunteers in the “Rutas y Andares” program.
  • Course on “Community Inquiry” for farmers (campesinos), Aspiro, Artemisa province (2015).
  • Workshop on “schoolyard ecology” for primary school teachers and supervisors, Villa Clara (2018).

This resolution of respect began with a reference to Michel's Zoom talk in June 2021. His plans for the postpandemic future included re-starting the annual summer field courses on research design, training teachers in schoolyard ecology throughout the rural schools in or near protected areas in Villa Clara, and workshops on “trails and tours of inquiry” in an international master's program in the Dominican Republic. Six weeks later all these dreams, certain to have become reality if Michel were still with us, dissipated.

Michel never paused. His insatiable curiosity, his intellectual brilliance, his drive, his humility, his good humor, his friendliness, and many other admirable traits never failed him. He never stopped working with that which he loved: ecology, plants, conservation, and people. Despite the logistic difficulties of accomplishing field research in Cuba, Michel continued to forge ahead until the end. His legacy includes a remarkable record of research and publications, two crucial academic programs that he co-founded in his own institution along with considerable contributions to other institutions, an inspired career in conservation and habitat restoration, and capacity building in and out of academia from one end to the other of Cuba. It also includes his many Cuban and international colleagues, friends, and students who miss him greatly.

A selection of Michel Faife Cabrera's most significant publications:
  • Ruiz, A., et al. 2001. Estudio cualitativo del complejo de vegetación de mogote en Sierra del Infierno, Pinar del Río. Revista del Jardín Botánico Nacional 22: 165–193. ISSN 0253-5696.
  • Wiley, J. W., et al. 2002. Bird surveys in the mogote vegetational complex in the Sierra del Infierno (Pinar del Río, Cuba). El Pitirre 15:7–15.
  • Faife, M., and A. Noa. 2003. Composición florística y estructura fisonómica del complejo de vegetación de costa arenosa de Cayo Santa Maria, Caibarién, Villa Clara. Memorias del Simposio de Botánica. ISBN 959-270-029-X.
  • Faife Cabrera, M. 2008. Gallery forest in Cuba: plant diversity, conservation state and challenges for restoration actions. Frontiers of Vegetation Science-An Evolutionary Angle. Proceedings of the 51st Annual Simposium of the International Asociation of Vegetation Science, Stellenboch, South Africa 7–12, 2008.
  • Mendez, O., M. Faife Cabrera, and I. Castañeda. 2008. Serpentine flora and vegetation of the SW Santa Clara region, Central Cuba. Frontiers of Vegetation Science-An Evolutionary Angle. Proceedings of the 51st Annual Simposium of the International Asociation of Vegetation Science, Stellenboch, South Africa 7-12, 2008.
  • Faife-Cabrera, M., E. Díaz-Alvarez, M. Cañizares-Morera, and E. M. Torres-Roche. 2012. Síndromes de Polinización y Dispersión de Endemismos en las Serpentinitas al Suroeste de Santa Clara, Cuba. Revista Centro Agrícola 39:61–66. ISSN: 0253-5785.
  • Oviedo, R., M. Faife-Cabrera, A. Noa-Monzón, J. Arroyo, A. Valiente-Banuet, and M. Verdú. 2014. Facilitation allows plant coexistence in Cuban serpentine soils. Plant Biology 16:711–716.
  • Faife-Cabrera, M., V. Ferrero, and L. Navarro. 2014. Unravelling the stylar polymorphism in Melochia species (Malvaceae): reciprocity and ancillary characters. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 176:147–158.
  • Faife-Cabrera, M., V. Ferrero, and L. Navarro. 2015. Strength through unity: spatial affinity between morphs improves fitness in incompatible heterostylous Melochia (Malvaceae) species. Journal of Plant Research 128:139–146.
  • Méndez-Orozco, O., M. Faife-Cabrera, and I. Castañeda-Noa. 2015. Flora y vegetación de las serpentinitas al suroeste de Santa Clara, Villa Clara, Cuba. Revista del Jardín Botánico Nacional 36:55–64.
  • Díaz-Alvarez, E., M. Faife-Cabrera, R. A. Pérez-Obregón, and E. Torres-Roche. 2015. Crónica de una muerte anunciada: evidencias demográficas de la sobreexplotación de una población de Acoelorraphe wrightii. Centro Agrícola 42:19–25.
  • Faife-Cabrera, M., V. Ferrero, and L. Navarro. 2016. Relationship between herkogamy, incompatibility and reciprocity with pollen–ovule ratios in Melochia (Malvaceae). Plant Biosystems.
  • Martínez-Pérez, L., and M. Faife-Cabrera. 2019. Robo de néctar en Guettarda clarensis (Rubiaceae): ¿importa el vecindario floral? Revista del Jardín Botánico Nacional 40:47–57.
  • Diaz, L., M. Faife-Cabrera, E. Díaz-Alvarez, E. Torres-Roche, and A. Toledo. 2019. Limitación de polen y polinización especialista de Rhytidophyllum lomense (Gesneriaceae) en Topes de Collantes, Cuba. Revista del Jardín Botánico Nacional 39:9–18.
  • Faife-Cabrera, M., V. Ferrero, and L. Navarro. 2018. Relationship between herkogamy, incompatibility and reciprocity with pollen–ovule ratios in Melochia (Malvaceae). Plant Biosystems 152:80–89. ISSN 11263504.
  • Rivas, M., M. Spínola, H. Arrieta, M. Faife-Cabrera. 2018. The effect of extreme climatic events resulting in prolonged precipitation on reproductive output of sea turtles. Animal Conservation.
  • García-Méndez, M., M. Faife-Cabrera. 2020. Influencia del efecto de borde en la estructura poblacional de Coccothrinax litoralis en Cayo Santa María, Villa Clara, Cuba. Centro Agrícola 47:17–21.