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Retiring Heggland Leaves Legacy of Research and Mentorship

May 2, 2024
Dr. Sara Heggland

In 2006, Dr. Sara Heggland collaborated with a couple of other faculty members on an idea. A singular string to pull together the pockets of research going on in various corners of the campus at The College of Idaho.

“We didn’t know when we sent out the abstract call (seeking presentation ideas) if we’d get one abstract or a hundred. We just said, ‘hope this works,’” recalled Heggland, the Smith-Stanford Endowed Chair and Professor of Biology at the College. “We had no idea.”

She said the group received 50 ideas and over 200 people wound up attending the presentations. It was then that the group knew they were on to something and it has become a staple of the academic calendar at the College, 18 years and counting.

The Student Research Conference.

Heggland’s 23-year career as a cell biology professor and researcher will end later this month. She’s retiring at the end of the school year and she calls the SRC one of her proudest achievements, but it’s hardly the only one. Heggland leaves a legacy of research, mentorship and education.

“The culture here has changed, that’s the huge thing and it’s due to Heggland,” said Wendy Harvey ’03, an instructor in the biology department. “She came in and (laboratory) research was kind of on the back burner but she changed that.”

When Heggland arrived in 2001, the College had established field research with longtime faculty greats like Don Mansfield and Eric Yensen ‘66. However, there was so little lab research that she initially had to grow cell cultures in desk drawers around Boone Hall. Harvey was a student at the College at the time and one of Heggland’s first research assistants.

“I would be running around Boone with a thermometer, looking for the coolest place in the building during the day. I’d have to move my cells because it got too cool or too hot,” Harvey said. “That was the beginning of the research we were doing.”

Around that time, Heggland received a phone call from Mike Laskowski at the University of Idaho, asking to meet. Heggland looked at longtime biology faculty member Ann Koga and the two decided to accept the meeting.

“What do we have to lose, right?” Heggland reasoned. “So we met over in McCain (Student Center) and he said, ‘Would you like $30,000 to do some biomedical research on your campus?’ I said yes, and I’m so glad I did.”

Laskowski, as it turns out, represented the group that would become INBRE, a statewide scientific network of research and educational collaborations housed at the University of Idaho funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The partnership, spanning more than two decades now, has led to more than $6 million in grant funding to support undergraduate biomedical research at The College of Idaho. The first thing that Heggland bought with the initial grant was an incubator, which allowed her to move cells out of desk drawers and into a lab for better research.

“My first lab was Ann Koga’s office,” Heggland said. “She graciously moved so we could set up a small cell-culture facility there.”

The research, the faculty, and the facilities have continued to grow from there. Now, to go along with the continued excellent field research, the College hosts research labs being run by educators like Heggland, Luke Daniels, Anna Himler, Mark Gunderson, Thomas Pirtle, and more, which also brings a smile to Heggland’s face.

Heggland secured the first NIH R15 grant ever award on our campus to fund her research and has run her lab for 20 plus years on external grant funding, that has led to over 150 student regional and national conference presentations. She has also served as the College’s INBRE grant program leader and has helped build a community of biomedical student and faculty researchers on our campus.

“I’ve watched other faculty get grants,” she said. “Once you get foundational money in to build a program, people will invest in you. They see you can do it. So yeah, I’m really proud of that.”

Heggland’s research focused on the effects of vaping, which led to many opportunities for students to showcase their research at conferences and has also been featured in television documentaries.

But now it’s all winding down. She’ll put on the cap and gown one more time this month at the annual Commencement ceremony, but then she’ll retire to a home she and her husband own on Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho, where she plans to take some time to relax before deciding on her next challenge.

“It’s beginning to sink in. It started to sink in right after spring break,” Heggland laughed. “I thought ‘Here’s a week break, it’s going to be great.’ And then we got back and I started thinking, oh my gosh, my next break is permanent.”

She’s been working on clearing out her office and lab for the better part of the last year, taking time to look at old pictures, reminisce about past experiences, and share memories with others. She has a program from the very first Student Research Conference in 2006, the only copy that she knows of, that she plans to give to colleague Katie Devine, who she has worked with on the SRC for many years. Former students have stopped by to visit and wish her well. Calls and texts have been common.

“How many excellent doctors are now out there treating patients because of her?” Harvey asked. “She has left a legacy of research and continued education. It really comes down to passion. She loves to teach, she loves to mentor, she loves to foster curiosity in students.”

The student-turned-colleague thinks back with gratitude to the time when Heggland was interviewing for the position at the College.

“If another person had been picked, my life would have been completely different,” she said.

The two office neighbors will see each other in Boone Hall for the next few weeks before Heggland puts away the gradebook for good. She says she’s sure she’ll come back to visit. She considers herself tethered to the College, whether she’s teaching a class on campus or not.

“I’m excited to see where the College continues to go, my department in particular,” Heggland said. “I have a lot of good friends, a lot of good memories here.”

The College of Idaho has a 133-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including eight Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit