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Washington State University
CAS Connect Summer 2014

From apathetic high-schooler to Fulbright scholar

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

In September, the WSU Vancouver doctoral candidate leaves for the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, on a Fulbright Fellowship. There he will undertake specialized training in theoretical research techniques to further his research into invasive aquatic species, a subject of concern to him and the international community.

"If I had set out on this path when I was 18, it would have been a disaster." -- Eric Dexter

Dexter has traveled a long way from being the apathetic kid who dragged his feet through school. To accept the Fulbright to study in Switzerland, he also had to earn the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship for Foreign Scholars.

Buoyed by resources and support structure

“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.

Eric Dexter
Eric Dexter

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 how to be a student.

Biology is “the only thing I’ve taken more classes in than how to go to school,” 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…. The only reason I’ve done well is I’ve been able to plug into resources, small groups.”

The end of 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, which required a degree in biology.

With his biology teacher’s encouragement, he applied for a paid summer internship studying invasive honeybees in Ghana through 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.

"The only reason I've done well is I've been able to plug into resources." -- Eric Dexter

He received the internship and left for Ghana on his first trip outside the United States, then immediately became ill with a nasty bug that put him in the hospital for a week.

“I was not a great traveler,” Dexter said. “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.

He realized he’s good at school, at research, and at international collaboration. He has 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 received his master’s degree, and began working toward his PhD.

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 with Steve Bollens, director and professor of the School of the Environment, and Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, associate clinical professor.

Far-reaching research

“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 work in scientific laboratories at Lake Geneva, one of the largest lakes of Western Europe, learning new genetic techniques for reconstructing the origins and spread of aquatic invasions and developing “a more nuanced approach to understanding how aquatic species get around,” he said.

During his nine months abroad, Dexter plans to connect with other researchers and attend an oceanography conference in Grenada, Spain. He will also serve as a cultural ambassador, talking about his research and the Fulbright Scholar program. Begun in 1948, it is the United States’ flagship international educational exchange program.