Healthy People

The Accidental Researcher

“I count myself an ‘accidental’ researcher. That’s because my career would have turned out quite differently, no doubt, had I not stumbled into a college class that changed everything.”

Cynthia Sagers
Cynthia Sagers

I count myself an “accidental” researcher. That’s because my career would have turned out quite differently, no doubt, had I not stumbled into a college class that changed everything.

I was an undergrad at the University of Iowa in the early 1980s, working in the hematology lab at the teaching hospital to support my studies, when I signed up for a class in tropical ecology taught by a charismatic young researcher named Stephen Hubbell (now at UCLA). One day he announced that he was taking applications to hire a research assistant. Figuring I’d be assigned to study the colonies of leaf-cutter ants he maintained in a basement lab in Iowa City, I applied. Imagine my shock when he offered me the job, saying: “Congratulations! You’re going to Panama.”

The leaf-cutter ant, it turned out, wasn’t Steve Hubbell’s only research subject. Tropical vegetation was another. I was to be part of a team at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute making the first-ever census of tree species on Barro Colorado Island.

The year I spent as a crew chief at that remote biological station gave me not just a window but a wide-open door into the methods (and sometimes the madness) of field biology. Day after day, I tromped across the island, caked to my knees in mud and soaked to my skivvies in rain. I learned to estimate tree populations by measuring transects and sampling 50 hectares of tropical forestland. I was enchanted.

The experience led me to become an evolutionary plant ecologist, but not just because of the fascinating subject matter. More significant than my learning about tropical ecology was getting down and dirty in the trenches with working scientists. I was a very young and impressionable person wondering what my life was going to be like. I became convinced, as a 22-, 23-year-old, that this was the most interesting place on the face of the Earth. So many people came through, all of them scientists. There were geoscientists, lots of botanists, mammalogists, ornithologists. Because I was with them every day, working alongside them, sharing meals and jokes and aha moments, I was able to imagine myself as one of them. In fact, I was one of them. That immediacy, that personal and professional intimacy, made all the difference in how I came to view myself and my place in the world.

That’s why in my role as Oregon State’s vice president for research, I’m so committed to opening the doors of research and discovery to undergraduates like senior Amanda Santos, whom I happened to meet last year at the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica, where she was working on a project on the coevolution of plants and insects. I was delighted to run across her recently on Facebook wearing, of all things, a Beavers T-shirt! Unbeknownst to me, she had found her way to OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the laboratory of associate professor Scott Heppell, one of the outstanding faculty members who demonstrates every day that working with students is tightly woven into the fabric of this university’s research enterprise.

Learn more about the resources available for undergraduates at the Research Office.