Alum Gene Tobia Devoted to Orchids and Learning
Completes Degrees in Nursing, Biology and Plant Science


One of the most useful qualities MCCC alumnus Gene Tobia has cultivated in his life is patience - patience in pursuing his education, patience on the job, and patience in growing orchids. In the three-plus years Tobia studied at Mercer, he grew so attached to the hybrid orchids he developed in the MCCC Greenhouse that he named some of them after members of his family. Several of his "babies" have been officially approved and accepted by the New Jersey State Horticultural Society.

A 30-something student who returned to college in Spring, 2003, Tobia worked his way through three degrees at Mercer, completing associate degrees in Nursing and Biology in December, 2006, and finishing up a degree in a field of intense personal interest - Plant Science - in December, 2007.

Alum Gene Tobia still visits the MCCC Greenhouse to check on his hybrid orchids. He is pictured with Horticulture Program Coordinator Amy Iseneker.

Originally from the Philippines, where exotic flowers bloom year-round and wild orchids are sold at flea markets, Tobia was working in a local nursery when he decided to study botany in Mercer's Ornamental Horticulture program, coordinated by Asst. Prof. Amy Iseneker. One semester later, he shifted into Nursing - another program with an emphasis on caring for fragile things - because of promising job prospects in the field.

Tobia soon found himself a very busy guy. While taking challenging evening classes and labs in Nursing, he worked as a patient care technician at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. With the ongoing support and guidance of Iseneker and Horticulture technician Marie Wszolek, he also continued to pursue his devotion to his orchids, working in the MCCC Greenhouse on this admittedly "out-of-control hobby."

In developing approximately 150 orchids, Tobia contentrated on creating hybrids that are easy to grow. He notes that growers hybridize for other factors as well, including heartiness in cooler temperatures, the creation of new color combinations, increased number of blossoms, and increased size.

Tobia says the process of developing hybrids is painstaking. First there is pollination from one orchid to another, followed by the production of a seed pod. Next the pods are sent out to a lab to be sown in a flask. After that, the seedlings are returned to be repotted.

And then they grow. "Over time, some die off," Tobia said. It perplexed him when one of his orchids languished. "You try to figure out why one plant is not as vigorous as the one growing right next to it. I would repot, fertilize. Still I lost some."

For Tobia, Mercer turned out to be the perfect place to study both plant science and nursing. "Lots of nursing students are adults. The evening program worked so well with my schedule. The program prepared us well for the boards."

Tobia is still learning every day as a dialysis nurse for Da Vita Dialysis Center, a job he started last August. He commutes to Philadelphia, working four days in 12-hour shifts that sometimes start as early as 5:30 a.m. In addition to the inpatient clinic, where patients come for treatment up to three times per week, he also makes house calls, teaching patients how to do dialysis at home.

After switching to nursing and then joining the workforce full-time, Tobia could have left the botany field behind. But there was only one more class to go - and then there were the orchids to consider. Even when Tobia moves on to Rutgers' Cook College to continue his study of plant science, his orchids will live on in the MCCC Greenhouse - for him to visit and for other Horticulture students to learn from and care for.

Return to Alumni Features