One day Cody Acevedo woke up and decided waiting tables wasn’t what he wanted to do the rest of his life.

“I was thinking about what made me happy when I was a child and it was nature,” says Acevedo, a senior in animal ecology.

More specifically, it was a fascination that began with a butterfly hunt in Milwaukee when he was five years old. He remembers his dad making a net out of mesh stitched to a hanger. The two went to an abandoned lot filled with weeds and wildflowers.

“We jumped the fence to catch butterflies,” Acevedo says. “My dad pinned them to a board and I was fascinated by their colors and intricate designs.”

That fascination continued into middle school where he planned and planted butterfly gardens. In high school he collected eggs and hatched them in 20-gallon tanks in his room. He says there were so many he could hear them munching on leaves at night. “I was obsessed,” Acevedo says.

He started college in Wisconsin, but because of financial difficulties he had to drop out. Acevedo said it was disappointing because he remembered a high school teacher pointing out that half of the students sitting in her class wouldn’t make it through college.

“I was determined not to be that student,” Acevedo says, “but there I was. And those words stuck with me.”

When he decided to go back to school he found Iowa State was one of the few universities to offer a major in animal ecology. Pursuing that major allowed him to work as a summer research assistant for the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium.

Last spring Acevedo joined 15 other students on a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Mike Rentz, assistant teaching professor in natural resource ecology and management, says the trip’s purpose is to show students they can be the scientists doing research in areas like Yellowstone.

“The Yellowstone trip helps them recharge their souls and it shows them that they can, and they should pursue these possibilities,” Rentz says. “Cody really believes this, and I can’t wait to see what he does in his career.”

In September Acevedo was nominated and received the George Washington Carver Spirit of Innovation and Service Award, which is sponsored by the George Washington Carver Birthplace Association. The award is presented to first-generation college students who are focused on science and research with the goal of continuing their education.

For Acevedo, being nominated for that award was validation he was on the right track. He describes it as an inspiring experience.

“To be in the same room with all these awardees was inspiring because they deemed me to be worthy of this award,” Acevedo says.

After he graduates in May 2021, Acevedo says he’s looking forward to graduate school and hopes to focus on conservation and habitat restoration.