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Into the “Unfamiliar”

Hauser with mentor Dennis Whigham ’66, senior botanist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

 

Perhaps Wes Hauser ’15 should pay less attention to his intentions in the future.

He came to Wabash with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Now he’s an award-winning biology major and botanist who’s traveled to Belize and studied abroad in Australia.

“I never thought about science,” Hauser laughs—something he does often. “Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer. I came to Wabash thinking, ‘I’m going to study political science.

While studying abroad at the School for Field Studies (SFS) Center for Rainforest Studies in northeastern Queensland last year, Hauser had no intention of studying the Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo. But his work with research partner Erin Emmons of Holy Cross resulted in two awards: the Distinguished Student Researcher award from the SFS and the Undergraduate Research Award from the Forum on Research Abroad.

“I had no interest in tree-kangaroos going into it, which is kind of crazy because they are very cute and very charismatic,” he explains. “I’m actually more interested in rainforest plants, and that’s why I went with a rainforest studies program for my study abroad.”

Hauser didn’t get to where he is by dumb luck. It was more a matter of identifying the proper outlets for his passions.

His legal interests were in environmental law, but he found the idea of being on the forefront of research and contributing as a scientific expert more appealing than the law itself. He chose to research tree-kangaroos because he was very interested in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software SFS was using to analyze data and answer questions.

Much like biology itself, many of Hauser’s efforts are intertwined and take root in an organized and focused approach. Dr. Amanda Ingram, Wabash associate professor of biology and department chair, has observed this process since Hauser’s arrival on campus from DeSoto, MO.

“Wes has never been slow to get started,” she said. “He came to see me before classes began his freshman year asking questions about how to get himself situated to succeed here. Most students never do that. He was on it from the beginning.”

Hauser attributes his interest in the environment to being an Eagle Scout and a nature director at a children’s summer camp. He credits Wabash with giving him the ability to answer the questions that have naturally arisen for him.

He has an area of concentration in environmental studies, which allowed him to pull together courses with environmental themes like art, religion, sociology, and English, and speak to a broad range of interests.

“I’ve always been inquisitive,” he says. “I always figure out some sort of underlying truth. That translates to science now. Having that inquisitive mindset and being able to tackle questions through multiple lenses is something Wabash has fostered in me, but I feel like it’s always been there.”

Ingram is more direct.

“Wes is someone who doesn’t mind getting dirty,” she says. “Wes is embracing these systems where multiple organisms are working with each other. That’s a really challenging question to address, but I think that’s why he’s gravitated toward field work because he wants to understand the big picture.”

In addition to his work with the Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo for the SFS while in Australia, Hauser has also studied with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) working with orchid mycorrhizal fungi in 2013. Further, he conducted preliminary research with Professor Ingram on wild orchid populations in Indiana this past summer, while also handling multiple projects in Homer, Alaska, working alongside Dennis Whigham ’66, senior botanist at SERC, focusing on nutrient flow within headwater streams and GIS modeling to predict nutrient flow for the watersheds.

Whigham came away impressed with Hauser’s work at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, where the two interacted daily for three weeks. Once Whigham departed for other SERC responsibilities, Hauser was left up to his own initiatives, including the unfamiliar task of sorting through cores collected from the wetlands.

“It is not a pleasant, nor necessarily an easy job and I could tell that it was not his cup-of-tea,” Whigham explaines. “He persisted, however, and the data that he sent me are very exciting and they will help us with the story that is emerging of the watershed-stream-wetland-fish interactions.”

Such a description does not surprise Professor Ingram. Wes has a knack for connecting the dots.

“He has the mental fortitude to dive into things he knows nothing about and figure it out,” said Ingram. “Wes has shown that he can do that. He can figure things out.”

His and Emmons’ award-winning run has put the duo in an interesting position. They will present their research in March at a luncheon attended by more than 1,400 international education professionals at the Forum on Research Abroad’s annual conference in New Orleans.

Hauser is an engaging presenter, whose easy-going smile belies the wealth of knowledge behind it. He enjoys connecting with an audience.

“There is a confidence that goes with what you know,” said Hauser. “The science is fun and the types of research I’ve done is really interesting. If I can make a joke or a connection to help people understand what my underlying research is saying, that delivers a take-home message and gives the research relevance.”

Not all of Hauser’s efforts work out. His first project, featuring earthworms and impacts of mycorrhizal fungi gradients on biomass, failed miserably.

“It was in a greenhouse, and it got really hot and the worms fried. It was a bad experimental design. I was a freshman, what was I supposed to know?” he laughed. “You learn more from failure.”

So the transition from pre-law to science is complete: Failure isn’t an end point, but a useful tool for this scientist.

“I tend to throw myself straight into the unfamiliar,” Hauser says. “The way I see it, one of two things can result: I could be successful or I could fall flat on my face. But, if I fall on my face, I can guarantee that I’ll learn something of value, so it’s really a win-win.”