Seeds of Discovery

Alison Balmat
September 01, 2002
James Collins

My brother handed me a small package, his eyes shining. "You just never know what you'll discover out there," he said, having returned east after six months in California's Sequoia National Park.

I unwrapped the tiny package. Inside rested a pinecone, the size of an egg and the color of hot cocoa. A pattern of oblong triangles formed its bumpy ridges. The cone was hard and dense—not brittle as I expected—and it smelled of campfires.

"It's a seed," explained my brother, a researcher of the fire history and ecology in the Sierra Nevada region. "It's hard to believe, but that cone is from the largest tree in the world."

The cone resting in my palm, filled with perhaps a hundred seeds, came from General Sherman, the colossal sequoia. Growing only in groves on the west side of Sierra Nevada range, the sequoias live for more than 2,000 years, with trunks almost 40 feet around and branches reaching 275 feet high.

Recently, Andrew Jones, a film and geography student featured in this magazine, told me he planned to spend his summer among the sequoias, fighting forest fires. Like my brother, other undergraduate students at Penn State are traveling to libraries and labs and field sites around the world, pursuing their curiosities and—in the process—exploring, learning, creating, and discovering.

For instance, Jen Wagner searched for evidence of leprosy in the bones of 196 ancient skeletons in Denmark. Annie Steed plucked cockroaches from a cage to gauge their resistance to insecticide. Erica Schneider flew to New Zealand to investigate earthquakes and fault lines. And Lincoln Rodgers spent four months in Mongolia, collecting goat hair to sample its DNA.

"Undergrads have so many cool ideas and ways of doing things," said Robin Hoecker, who clipped photographs into hundreds of tiny pieces before meticulously assembling the scraps into a giant mosaic depicting her vision for social equality. "We take our enthusiasm and passions and create pretty impressive work."

Sometimes undergraduates open up opportunities merely by wondering why and how a simple pinecone can grow to tower over a forest.

Curiosity is the start, said Gia Viggiano, a biology student testing frog blood for disease. "Research stems from what you are truly passionate about."

It's a seed. And once planted, you just never know what you'll discover.

Alison Balmat served as the student editor for this issue of Research/Penn State. She graduated in May 2002 with a B.A. in French and geography, honors in geography, and a minor in international studies from the Colleges of the Liberal Arts, Earth and Mineral Sciences, and the Schreyer Honors College.

Last Updated June 15, 2015