Real-Life Alumni: Ernesto Sandoval, '96 B.S. Curator, UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

Ernesto Sandoval

Ernesto Sandoval graduated from U.C. Davis in 1996 with a Bachelor of Science in Plant Biology. David Slipher/UC Davis

“I know that working with plants isn’t for everyone and that in some ways animals and humans capture a lot of our attention. But the world would be a better place if more people cultivated plants.”
- Ernesto Sandoval, '96 B.S.
by Lily O'Connor-Coates

For Ernesto Sandoval, manager and curator of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory, cultivating plants is a labor of love. He spends most of his days working closely with plants and people and facilitating interactions between the two. He runs tours, keeps the greenhouses in order and shares his knowledge of plant science with visitors. Sandoval graduated with Bachelor of Science in Plant Biology in 1996.

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Discovering a Passion for Plant Life

Although he came to UC Davis with plans to become a marine biologist, Sandoval soon found a calling with plants. He began his first foray into plant biology while working in a plant anatomy lab during his freshman year and then at the Botanical Conservatory during his first summer in Davis. After that, he was hooked.

“I grew up around landscapers and farmer families but I didn’t discover my passion for plants until I was inundated with possibilities to explore the plant world here at UC Davis,” Sandoval said. “You could say that because of my time at Davis and the diversity of people working on plants here, the experience helped me find my place in the plant world.”

He continued to gain experience working with plants in labs as an undergraduate teaching assistant and also with the Great Valley Grasslands State Park where he worked as a botanist performing a biological survey during his senior year. Sandoval recognizes UC Davis for its endless opportunities, both in education and in research.

“The best advice I can give to students is to get some hands-on experience in your field beyond the coursework,” said Sandoval. “Because you are an adult now, the responsibility for obtaining a well-rounded education is yours solely. Academic success and courses are only one part of your self-education. Employers want to see a well-rounded individual, and experience outside of the classroom is very valuable to them. UC Davis wants you to be a successful undergraduate, but what you want to do with your degree is up to you.”

Growing Passion into a Career

The UC Davis Botanical Conservatory, located near Storer Hall, is both a teaching and research facility and contains many exotic plants. One species, the titan arum, is one of the world’s largest and rarest flowering plants. Commonly known as the ‘corpse flower’ the odor it gives off mimics rotting flesh to deceptively attract pollinating insects, which feed on or lay their eggs in dead animals.

“I know that working with plants isn’t for everyone and that in some ways animals and humans capture a lot of our attention,” Sandoval said. “But the world would be a better place if more people cultivated plants.”

Sandoval takes pride in finding new possibilities for cross-campus collaboration. He hosts students in the Botanical Conservatory, leading tours of the nearly 4,000 plant species found within. He feels fortunate to work with many different types of students, including STEM and non-STEM majors. Young scientists get the chance to learn about the how and why of plant life, while young artists explore the plants in the conservatory, seeking inspiration from the colors and forms of the variety of plants.

“There’s just such an incredible diversity of people working on plants at this university and I feel fortunate to get to learn from all of them,” he said. “What makes UC Davis unique is the breadth of educational and research opportunities in the life sciences.”

A talented student, Sandoval received Cal and Pell Grants, the Emil Mrak Student Scholarship and an Outstanding Graduate Citation in Plant Biology.

After busy days inside the greenhouse and classrooms, Sandoval relaxes by making time for family and friends and practicing photography.