Alumni News | Ryan Wagner turns his grad school, camera focus on mudpuppy salamanders

Published: September 10, 2022 Author: Staff reports

Ohio University alumnus Ryan Wagner has left a lot of footprints across the state of Ohio—most of them muddy ones along the streams that harbor some of his favorite research subjects: hellbenders and mudpuppy salamanders.

While those footprints will wash away, his pursuit of wildlife is usually documented in lasting images he posts to his Instagram account (@ryanbwagner).

Wagner's undergraduate studies at OHIO found him in local streams studying hellbenders, along the Route 33 bypass around Nelsonville studying turtles crossing the road, in Ecuador on a study abroad experience, as well as in many Biological Sciences Department laboratories. He earned a B.S. in  Biological Sciences–Wildlife and Conservation in 2020 from the College of Arts and Sciences.

OHIO Biological Sciences students are hip-deep in the search for hellbenders. From left, Ryan Wagner, Christine Hanson and Matt Kaunert.
OHIO Biological Sciences students are hip-deep in the search for hellbenders. Shown from left to right are Ryan Wagner, Christine Hanson and Matt Kaunert.

Now he's pursuing a master's degree in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University.

"I am currently studying the conservation and distribution of the common mudpuppy salamander in Ohio," said Wagner, who plans to go on to a Ph.D. program.

Just as photography has played a role in his work so far, Wagner's career plans include using a multimedia approach to communicate science stories.

"As the Department of Biological Science runs our first OHIO Wildlife and Nature Photography Scholarship Competition this fall, we look to Ryan as a great example of a scientist who shares his passion for nature with the public," said Viorel Popescu, associate professor of conservation biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Popescu noted that Wagner's photo of a garter snake was selected for the 2018 Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp while Wagner was a sophomore at OHIO.

Garter snake photo by Ryan Wagner that will be featured on the 2018 Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp.
Garter snake photo by Ryan Wagner that is featured on the 2018 Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp.

Wagner's advice on nature photography: "I would recommend students try to get a novel perspective on nature or wildlife. Show an organism or a place in a way that few people have ever seen it."

Wagner's advice: 'Get involved in a lab'

Wagner got his start making footprints and photographs with Marcel Weigand (M.S. in Biological Sciences 2018 and 2014 undergraduate degree in music) investigating the impact of the Route 33 bypass through the Wayne National Forest on the local box turtle population as part of Popescu's lab.

“This was my first exposure to wildlife field research, and it gripped me! I love reptiles, and having the opportunity to participate in all aspects of this study, from capturing, tagging and tracking turtles, to stress hormone lab work, data analysis and manuscript writing, set the stage for my next career move, graduate school,” Wagner said at the time.

Box turtle crossing an unpaved road in the Wayne National Forest. Photo by Ryan Wagner
Box turtle crossing an unpaved road in the Wayne National Forest. Photo by Ryan Wagner

"Dr. Popescu took me under his wing during my freshman year. He made my undergrad experience what it was. I am incredibly grateful for his mentorship and kindness. He gave me the chance to work in his lab and get field experience with his grad students that jump-started my career. I use the field, lab, and statistics skills that he taught me every day in my graduate career," Wagner said.

Wagner seized every opportunity he could at OHIO. He worked as a field technician on grad student projects during the summer and semesters. He studied abroad for two weeks in Ecuador with the Environmental and Plant Biology Department.

"Some of my favorite memories include going on field trips in the ‘ologies’ classes. Going birding, electrofishing, and herping were great fun," Wagner said.

He concluded his undergraduate degree with a Departmental Honors thesis on snake road mortality in Popescu’s lab.

Ryan Wagner, portrait
​Ryan Wagner ​

"My greatest academic success was publishing my undergraduate thesis as my first first-author paper," Wagner noted. "I keep in close touch with Dr. Viorel Popescu. I go to him for career and science advice whenever I need it."

Wagner's advice for today's biology students: "I would recommend every undergraduate student to get involved in a lab. There are all kinds of research labs at OHIO, and getting experience sets you apart and teaches you new skills. Meet your professors and talk to their grad students. Get involved volunteering with a lab and then apply for their undergraduate research positions. You can also form personal and professional relationships that will last throughout your career."

Wagner also got involved with the Wildlife Club as a freshman and later served as the secretary and president for two years.

"My ah-ha moments included joining Wildlife Club, volunteering for graduate students, and getting my first paid position as a field tech in Dr. Popescu’s lab. These moments lead me to have a very successful experience at OHIO," he said.

Editor's Note: The Happy Beginnings series features recent College of Arts and Sciences graduates who are getting started in careers, graduate school and service.