Our Stories

Fulbright Sends Student to the Netherlands

For as long as he can remember, Lucas Nebert '08 has been asking, "Why?"

The curiosity gene came from his parents, both biology academics -- his dad a geneticist and toxicologist, and his mom a molecular biologist and cancer researcher. They always encouraged him to ask questions when he was young, and they made sure he knew how to find the answers.

As he graduates this spring with a double major in chemistry and biology, Nebert will continue asking, "Why?" This time, he'll travel to the Netherlands to do it. He has been honored with a Fulbright Grant for U.S. Students, which supports post-graduate research, creative projects or teaching in more than 150 countries each year. Nebert is one of 10 Willamette students and alumni to receive a Fulbright in the past five years.

Nebert will work with faculty at Wageningen University to research microbial ecology, specifically applied to the area of sustainable agriculture and soil biodiversity. The Netherlands is one of the world leaders in this type of research, which examines the relationships of microorganisms in the soil. Nebert has a particular interest in the way different farming practices affect the soil biodiversity, which may also affect the soil's greenhouse gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide.

"Holland is asking important questions about what makes soil healthy," Nebert says. "They're making comparisons between soil in pristine areas and in unhealthy areas. They're trying to find what organisms are present in healthy soil, and how these organisms may be used in creating and informing public policy.

"We eat plants, and those plants require certain microorganisms in the soil. But we basically know nothing about these organisms because they're so small. We are just beginning to know the net effect of what they're doing."

Nebert grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but his parents were from Oregon, and they visited the state often while he was growing up. He wanted to head west for college and originally set his sights on attending a large university. But in the end he chose Willamette, and he doesn't regret it.

"I made the right choice. I've been able to establish a lot of close relationships with my professors. You're held a lot more accountable in small classes, which I've come to realize is a good thing."

It was those relationships with his professors, particularly biologist David Craig and political and environmental scientist Joe Bowersox, that sparked his interest in environmental issues. He also had the opportunity last fall to meet one of his scientific heroes -- Edward O. Wilson, a world leader in entomology, animal behavior, biodiversity and other sciences. Wilson visited campus to deliver a lecture in honor of the biology department's centennial anniversary celebration. (Read more about Wilson's visit at http://blog.willamette.edu/news/archives/2007/09/willamette_comm.php.)

"Scientists are often afraid to use the word 'ethics' because it makes them seem like they have a bias," Nebert says. "[Wilson] is not afraid to use that word. He's an environmental advocate, but he's also a well-respected scientist. ... He tried to show students there's this field that we don't know anything about -- microbial ecology.

"Soil is so important. You get your food from the soil. There's toxic waste in the soil that must be cleaned up. You can fight desertification if you introduce certain microbes into the soil. I feel lucky to have found this type of research."

For information on the Fulbright grant and others, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the second floor of Putnam University Center, or visit www.willamette.edu/dept/saga/.