Growing up in a farming village in Pangasinan, Philippines, UWinnipeg student Aira Villanueva was climbing mango*, star apple and java plum fruiting trees for fun and adventure while her grandfather taught her to graft trees. During the rainy season, she would go foraging for mushrooms with her grandmother.
This close proximity and engagement with nature planted seeds of curiosity and a love of plants, which was her first introduction to botany.
The people that share their findings inspires me to go out and try to and look for species too.
Now, Villanueva, in her third year of the integrated education program, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry at UWinnipeg, has won The Richard Staniforth Manitoba Association of Plant Biologists Undergraduate Prize in Botany.
Villanueva’s was reacquainted with her love of mushrooms one cold autumn morning in 2019 when she volunteered for the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre Run for Wildlife.
“During the day, we saw at least 10 different species of fungi,” said Villanueva. “My fascination was out of control that I looked for courses on fungi.”
Villanueva then took the Algae Fungi and Mosses class taught in the Department of Biology by Dr. Rafael Otfinowski, which she really enjoyed.
“I loved the class so much that I asked Dr. Otfinowski if he would be interested in starting a mycology club with me at UWinnipeg,” said Villanueva.
Due to the pandemic, the club is now on hold, but her curiosity remains. She found community groups on Facebook where her fascination with fungi and mushrooms is shared and joined the Mycology Association of Manitoba and Native Manitoba Plants.
“The people that share their findings inspires me to go out and try to and look for species too,” said Villanueva. “During summer, I found chanterelles, shaggy mane, puffballs, hedgehog mushrooms, coprinellus spp, boletes, and the famous chicken of the woods.”
Otfinowski noticed Villanueva’s keen interest in the class and nominated her for the prize. “Aira became really enthusiastic about fungi and did a lot of extra lab work,” he said. “She always stayed behind to ask excellent questions and really shared her enthusiasm with other students. She also helps her colleagues to find fungi for their class assignments!”
Villanueva plans to do her masters in education, specializing in outdoor education, and hopes to study agriculture at the University of Manitoba. Nowadays, she is also attracted to orchids or any types of flowers and variegated plants. “I also hope to see native orchids of Manitoba someday and open a flower farm one day,” she said.
The Richard Staniforth Manitoba Association of Plant Biologists Undergraduate Prize in Botany is presented to an undergraduate student with significant academic achievement in the study of botany.
The prize was established by Staniforth’s friends and colleagues at UWinnipeg and the Manitoba Association of Plant Biologists. It recognizes Dr. Staniforth’s many accomplishments as a teacher and mentor, encouraging students to pursue study in the botanical sciences, his enduring support for and life-long love of learning, and the pursuit of further academic degrees.
*also known as caimito and ducat tress respectively in the Philippines