For 13 years, Hillsborough Community College president Gwendolyn Stephenson wanted to see one of her students named to USA Today's All-USA Community College Academic Team.
No one from HCC had ever made it.
"Community colleges around the country really want their very, very good students to receive this award," she said.
Finally, with about a month to spare before Stephenson's June retirement, it has happened.
For bringing home the honor, HCC thanks Ralph Jacobi, who was determined to answer just one question:
What killed my marsh grass?
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Today Jacobi, 20, is an HCC sophomore with a part-time job cooking in his family's restaurant, the Schnitzelhaus on W Waters Avenue, and a plan to pursue a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Florida.
But three years ago, he was a homeschooled student trying to become an Eagle Scout.
For his community service project, Jacobi led a team from Troop 339 in Lutz that planted 5,000 plugs of salt marsh grass at MacDill Air Force Base in mid-2007.
A few months later, Jacobi returned to the base to find that 95 percent of the grass plugs had died. He had become an Eagle Scout, but he was not pleased with the way the project turned out.
"My goal was to leave a lasting effect on the area, and my project had no effect at the time," said Jacobi, the son of Mike and Susila Jacobi of Carrollwood Village.
With the help of his father, Jacobi found Brian Silliman, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida.
By the time they made contact, Jacobi had already read up on Silliman's research and could ask penetrating questions about the science of salt marsh ecology. Silliman said it's virtually unheard of to get that kind of informed inquiry from someone who's not a professor or a graduate student.
"It shows a lot of initiative and a lot of creativity," he said.
With Silliman's guidance, Jacobi set up a series of three research projects, two at MacDill and one at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County. The experiments assessed how a variety of factors — the presence of the periwinkle snail, algae, barnacles, sea weed, as well as the timing and spacing of the plantings — affected the survival of the grass.
In the end, Jacobi said the research showed that the snails were not a significant threat to the grass, but the timing of the plantings made a difference. It also helped to plant the plugs close together. And along the way, some of the grass planted in one of the MacDill experiments ended up thriving, so Jacobi achieved his lasting impact.
The research was impressive, Silliman said. After a few hours of conversation, Jacobi put together a series of experiments with an analytical sophistication that some graduate students cannot muster after months of work. If one thing didn't work, he tried something else.
USA Today's All-USA Community College Academic Team was named last month and includes 20 students from around the country.
They ranged in age from 19 to 53, and had done projects in disaster relief, Third World education, greenhouse gas research and veterans assistance, among other things. In addition to Jacobi, three came from Florida schools: Miami Dade College, Chipola College in Marianna and Pensacola Junior College.
"That is very significant," Stephenson said. "I think this is a real testament to the quality of our Florida community colleges."
Jacobi said he was thrilled at the honor and relieved that there's finally some new salt marsh grass growing at MacDill.
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.