Jorge Fidhel Gonzalez stands in the Duke Biology Greenhouses.

Blue Devil of the Week: A Caretaker for 1,000 Plants

Jorge Fidhel-Gonzalez, supervisor of the Research Greenhouses, knew he wanted to work at Duke from his first visit to campus

What he does at Duke: Jorge Fidhel-Gonzalez starts every workday by surveying his workspace: the Research Greenhouses that span about 15,000 square feet.

Donning cargo shorts, a T-shirt and knee-high rubber boots, his first task is to walk across the sprawling facility behind the Biological Science Building, stopping by individual bays to check on plants and ensure all equipment is working properly.

Jorge Fidhel-Gonzalez, right, outside of the Department of Biology Buildings in 2016. Photo courtesy of Jorge Fidhel-Gonzalez.

With unique research projects (the oldest project is 13 years old) across individual spaces, it’s imperative that each space is kept at a specific temperature, humidity and light hours.

And every inch of the greenhouse facility, which is used for research and teaching by the Department of Biology, is his responsibility.

Managing a team of four staff members, Fidhel-Gonzalez and his colleagues monitor and care for 1,000 plants in the Teaching Collection and more than 15 experiments. They water, fertilize and control pests in everything from tomato plants and palm trees to rare species of Venus flytraps and bromeliads, which are native to tropical climates.

During his time as supervisor, Fidhel-Gonzalez and his team collaborated with others in the department to launch a greenhouse Instagram page as well as digitize information on plants in the Live Plant Collections.

A life working with plants combines his love for helping people and nature.

“I really like horticulture,” Fidhel-Gonzalez said. “I feel like society has always been built around crops, and to be part of the community means to work with crops. I like what I do, and I feel comfortable leading the group. I feel called to help people.”

What he values about working at Duke: Fidhel-Gonzalez moved to the United States from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, where he grew up. He studied Agricultural Engineering in his hometown and worked with several non-governmental organizations doing crop extension work with small farmers in Venezuela. When he settled in North Carolina 2008, he spoke relatively little English. But he knew after a visit to Duke’s campus shortly after moving to Durham that he wanted to work at Duke, and in 2009, he started work as a horticulturist assistant at the Duke Phytotron.

He appreciates Duke’s community because students and researchers remind him of friends in Venezuela.

“I studied agriculture because I like crops,” he said. “I really like plants that produce something, and where something can be harvested from the plant.”

Among his favorite drawings, Jorge Fidhel-Gonzalez drew a portrait of his father. Photo courtesy of Jorge Fidhel-Gonzalez.

“There are always nice, great people around you at Duke,” Fidhel-Gonzalez said. “People understand if you come from a different culture. This is the great part of Duke that everybody comes here to do their job.  They don’t have a problem if you’re from another country. They only want you to belong to this community.”

Even though there are many unique and rare plants, Fidhel-Gonzalez has a soft spot for horticultural crops like tomatoes, soybeans and potatoes due to his Agriculture background.

These crops, which, outside of research purposes, are considered a food, remind him of his early days in Crop Extension in Venezuela.

Something people may not know about him: After his work and his family, Fidhel-Gonzalez is an artist who spends free time drawing people, places, and animals with charcoal pencils.

He enjoys drawing people, picking someone out from a magazine and recreating their facial expressions with details, shading in features one line at a time.  

“This is something I love,” he said. “I love to sit down and put all my emotions into drawing. The only thing you need to do is to put everything else aside and that’s not your problem for now. That is something I really like.”

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.