Willamette student awarded prestigious $250,000 fellowship

Jeff Weber, a chemistry and mathematics senior at Willamette University, 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 are recruiting Weber for their graduate programs, but he is still deciding where to continue his research.

While attending Willamette, Weber worked closely with chemistry professor Karen Holman to research an anti-cancer drug by collecting data with a particle accelerator, and he won a fellowship to spend a summer at Caltech working with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail.

He previously 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.

Many 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.

"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," he said. "This provided me with insight into the holistic world of research design and development that I'll enter after leaving Willamette."

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," Weber 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.

About Hertz Fellowships

Hertz Fellowships allow exceptional applied-scientists and engineers the freedom to innovate. Fellows pursue their own ideas with financial independence under the guidance of the professors at the country's top universities. They are chosen for their intellect, their ingenuity and their potential to bring meaningful and lasting change to our society. 

More information about competitive grants and scholarships, visit Student Academic Grants and Awards.