From space to strawberries: Fall Commencement speakers announced

University of Florida President Ben Sasse on Thursday announced a dynamic lineup for Fall Commencement Dec. 15 and 16, featuring two accomplished speakers with unique journeys of discovery.

Sen. Bill Nelson

Then-U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986. This photo and the bumper sticker are part of a collection in UF’s Smathers Libraries. (Photo provided by UF)

NASA Administrator and longtime U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a leading advocate for space exploration, will address two of the five scheduled ceremonies. Aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, Nelson orbited Earth 98 times, oversaw 12 medical experiments — and displayed while weightless a “Florida Gators” bumper sticker that is now part of the UF Libraries permanent collection.

UF Professor of Plant Pathology Natália Peres, who is pioneering the use of AI in strawberry plant disease detection and has dedicated her career to growing Florida’s strawberry industry, will speak at the remaining three ceremonies.

A researcher sits in a strawberry field

(Photo provided by UF/IFAS)

“As an elite research institution with a radically practical approach, UF is committed to the work of discovery – whether in deep space or right here in the fields of Florida,” Sasse said. “Administrator Nelson and Professor Peres personify this ethos in unique, amazing, and very different ways. We are thrilled that our Gator graduates will get to hear their stories.”

Nelson, a fifth-generation Floridian, attended UF as an undergraduate before earning his bachelor’s and law degrees from Yale and the University of Virginia, respectively. He spent three terms as a U.S. senator from Florida and six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was nominated as NASA administrator in 2021 by President Biden. 

He will speak at the 9 a.m. bachelor’s and master’s ceremony and the 2 p.m. bachelor’s, master’s, and specialist’s ceremony set for Saturday, Dec. 16. in the O’Connell Center.

Peres, who earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from São Paulo State University in Brazil, began her UF career in 2004 when she joined the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, in Hillsborough County. She has developed many new techniques and systems for strawberry disease prevention – including, recently, an artificial intelligence-based system to help growers identify dangerous diseases using their cell phones.

Peres will speak at the doctoral commencement ceremony and the bachelor’s and master’s ceremony set for 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, respectively, as well as the 7 p.m. bachelor’s and master’s ceremony on Dec. 16, all in the O’Connell Center.

UF News December 7, 2023