WSUV grad student receives Fulbright to study in Switzerland

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

Published:

 

Fulbright scholars

• Program started: 1948.

o Alumni: More than 100,000.

o Read stories of previous Fulbright scholars at us.fulbrightonline.org.

Fulbright scholars

Program started: 1948.

o Alumni: More than 100,000.

o Read stories of previous Fulbright scholars at us.fulbrightonline.org.

Growing up in Florida, Eric Dexter was the only kid in his class who didn’t want to become a marine biologist. He barely graduated from high school. No one in his family had ever gone to college or traveled outside the country.

In September, the Washington State University Vancouver graduate student leaves for the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, on a Fulbright Fellowship. There he will receive specialized training on theoretical research techniques to further his research on invasive aquatic species on Lake Geneva, one of the largest lakes in Western Europe. The subject of aquatic invasive species is a matter of international concern.

Dexter has traveled a long way from being the apathetic kid who barely graduated from high school. To accept the Fulbright to study in Switzerland, he also had to be awarded the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship for Foreign Scholars. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program of the United States, with more than 100,000 alumni since the program began in 1948.

“If I had set out on this path when I was 18, it would have been a disaster,” Dexter said in an interview at the environmental science aquatic ecology laboratory at WSU Vancouver.

Surrounded by shelves of aquatic specimens floating in jars of preservative, Dexter spends hours identifying and photographing invasive plankton under a microscope and sketching them in his field journals.

About once a month, he gathers collection nets and measuring equipment and travels to four points on the banks of the Columbia River — from Vancouver to the mouth of the river — to collect plankton.

Dexter is quick to point out that he had to learn to become a student.

“The only thing I’ve taken more classes in than how to go to school is biology,” Dexter said. “Everything I’ve done is because of a huge support structure. I wouldn’t have received the Fulbright without help from other people.”

Looking back on his high school years, Dexter said, “If you’re not doing something in school that interests you, you’ll not do well in school. The only reason I’ve done well is I’ve been able to plug into resources, small groups.”

Dead-end jobs

After high school, Dexter worked a series of dead-end jobs and played music. Eventually, he became a massage therapist. At age 25, he enrolled at Portland Community College to become an acupuncturist. The first step was getting a biology degree.

At the encouragement of his biology teacher, he applied for a paid summer internship studying invasive honeybees in Ghana with the National Science Foundation. Although he said he wasn’t qualified for the internship, he wrote on his application that he could produce a short documentary about the project.

He received the internship and left for Ghana on his first trip outside the United States. Immediately he became very ill with a nasty bug.

“I was sick in the ER for a week,” Dexter said. “I was not a great traveler. But that experience in Ghana changed my career path. I’ve been doing research ever since.”

He completed his bachelor of science in biology but refocused his goal from acupuncture to environmental science and aquatic species.

Dexter realized he was good at school, at doing research and at international collaboration. He’s studied colonial tunicates, another small sea creature, in San Francisco Bay. In Bermuda, he did coral reef research, studying ocean acidification, a result of burning fossil fuels.

When it came time for graduate school, he chose WSU Vancouver so he could study invasive species in the Columbia River ecosystem. In May, he’ll earn his master’s degree, then will begin working toward his Ph.D.

His doctoral work will broaden his study of invasive species in the Columbia River ecosystem between Puget Sound and San Francisco.

At WSU Vancouver, Dexter works in the aquatic ecology laboratory with Stephen M. Bollens, director and professor of the School of the Environment, and Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, associate clinical professor.

“Eric’s proposed research in Switzerland will benefit both his own career and the larger scientific community,” Bollens said. “He also has the maturity, poise and integrity to be an outstanding ambassador for the United States and to foster mutual respect and common understanding across cultures.”

In Lausanne, Dexter will join the laboratories of Severine Vuilleumier and Jerome Goudet to learn new genetic techniques that will enable him to reconstruct the origins and spread of aquatic invasions and develop “a more nuanced approach to understanding how aquatic species get around,” he said.

During his nine months in Switzerland, he plans to attend an oceanography conference in Grenada, Spain, connect with other researchers and spend time being a cultural ambassador, talking about his research and the Fulbright Scholar program.

Dexter and his wife, Claire, were married in Lausanne. Both speak French. Returning to Lausanne with his wife and their 3-year-old son, Redmond Amadeus Dexter, will be a homecoming of sorts and a family adventure. They’re planning to spend Christmas in Corsica with a WSUV colleague who is going home for Christmas.

“My son understands Switzerland has chocolate and trains,” Dexter said.