A Life of Discovery

My first scientific experiment happened by chance during a childhood ramble in eastern Iowa. I was 7 or 8, exploring the woods around rural Maquoketa with my grandmother, who loved the outdoors. I picked up a small brown nut and asked, “Granny, is this the kind of nut that’s good to eat?” “Well,” she said with just the slightest twinkle in her eye, “why don’t you tell me?” I bit into the pale kernel and winced, spitting it out as fast as I could. It turned out to be the aptly named bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), not poisonous but not exactly palatable, either. (Early settlers fed them to their pigs, inspiring their other common name, pignuts.)

Cynthia Sagers meets with a researcher at Oregon State University.
Cynthia Sagers meets with a researcher at Oregon State University.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that I went on to become a botanist who studies the chemical, genetic and evolutionary science behind the tastes and scents that protect plants from animals and insects that would eat them. Maybe, but I doubt it. More likely, those early wildland explorations forged some deep, synaptic connection in my young brain between nature’s mysteries and a grandmother’s love. By the time I got to college, plant ecology was in my bones.

So what could feel more fitting when, as an undergrad at the University of Iowa, I got the chance to lead a field crew taking a census of tropical tree species at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama? My experience in the jungles of Panama — doing my first fieldwork; meeting my Ph.D. mentor, botanical “rock star” Phyllis Coley; hanging around with geoscientists, ecologists, ornithologists — was absolutely seminal in my journey as a scientist. To have these brilliant people sitting across the table from me at breakfast or on the sofa beside me after dinner, talking about their ideas, their questions, their passions, had a really strong impression on me.

So imagine my surprise at the latest coincidence in the trajectory of my professional life: Shortly after arriving on campus late this summer, I learned that the fall issue of Terra magazine — the first issue to appear on my watch as Oregon State’s new vice president for research — would feature a story about OSU scientists conducting avian ecology studies at the very same Smithsonian institute in Panama where I cut my teeth as a scientist (see “The Mystery of the Disappearing Birds”).

Living for a year in that community of people so committed to research was contagious. In my role at Oregon State, I want to pass on that contagion with every tool at my disposal, to students in particular. OSU’s undergraduate research program is growing fast. As for grad students and post-docs, I want to make sure they know the Research Office is here to give them what they need for their own journeys of discovery.

We are poised to grow OSU’s $308.9 million research enterprise to ever greater heights. I can’t wait to work with all of you at this great university and, in the spirit of discovery I inherited from my grandmother, to explore the forests and waters of this beautiful place.

Before being named vice president for research at Oregon State in May 2015, Cynthia Sagers was associate vice provost for research and development at the University of Arkansas.