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Jeff Weber '10 engaged in numerous hands-on research projects during his time at Willamette.

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Weber traveled to Stanford with his mentor, Professor Karen Holman, for chemistry research.

Willamette student earns prestigious $250,000 fellowship

Jeff Weber '10, a chemistry and mathematics major, was one of only 15 students from nearly 600 applicants nationwide to earn a prestigious $250,000 Hertz Foundation Fellowship for innovative leaders in the applied sciences and engineering.

The award, which supports up to five years of graduate studies, is the nation's most generous doctoral fellowship.

Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, Princeton, MIT and Columbia all tried to recruit Weber for their chemistry PhD programs. He plans to head to Stanford.

"If you told me four years ago I'd be named a Hertz Fellow at Willamette, I wouldn't have believed it," Weber says. "But Willamette has placed me in the absolute best possible position for entering grad school in the sciences. I couldn't have been better prepared at any other school in the country."

Research Opportunities

The fellowship is the latest in an impressive list of accomplishments for Weber during his time at Willamette.

As a junior, he won a fellowship to spend a summer at Caltech working with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail and 17 postdoctoral researchers in an electron imaging lab.

"It was an interesting dynamic being the only person without a PhD in a group of 19," Weber says. "I got some good research results, so my opinion mattered as we tried to solve the over-arching research problems. Discussions with a group of such great minds were the greatest reward."

Weber also traveled to Stanford with his mentor, Willamette chemistry Professor Karen Holman, to collect data using one of the world's largest particle accelerators. The two were researching a new type of anti-cancer drug that has minimal side effects.

"My research has focused on a class of metal-based anti-cancer compounds," Weber says. "I'm interested in characterizing an important drug-protein intermediate that forms during the drug's transport through the blood stream.

"My research at Willamette — and as a math major, my strong mathematical background — has greatly encouraged me to apply physical techniques to address large biological problems."

Weber also earned a national Goldwater Scholarship for students pursuing mathematics or science careers, and Willamette awarded him a Presidential Scholarship, which provides money for tuition and summer research.

Value of the Liberal Arts

All the rest of this year's Hertz Fellows come from large, research-oriented universities — including MIT, Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard — but Weber says he earned distinct advantages by studying at a small, liberal arts university like Willamette.

"Willamette helped me hone my writing skills. Zewail at Caltech spends much of his time submitting grant proposals to fund his research. Willamette students often get into the best grad schools in the country because those schools understand the importance of being able to communicate your ideas effectively.

"The most exciting aspect of my research at Willamette was its conception — from a wide range of interdisciplinary topics, I was able to choose and pursue my own interests in the laboratory. This provided me with insight into the holistic world of research design and development that I'll enter after leaving Willamette."

A Future in Science

In graduate school, Weber plans to examine how proteins fold and interact within the body.

"A great number of diseases are caused by the phenomenon of protein misfolding: in many cases, important proteins are rendered dysfunctional by mysterious ‘mistakes' in self-interaction," he said.

Using physical principles such as quantum and statistical mechanics, mathematical frameworks that describe subatomic processes and how they affect larger objects, he hopes to better understand certain diseases and to help design drugs that inhibit mistakes.

Holman, Weber's mentor, said that his work will have an important impact on society.

"If he wins his own Nobel someday, I won't be surprised," she said.