COLUMBIA — Nathan Means grew up with a backyard garden filled with plants — marigolds, hollyhocks, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, squash.
The garden plot remained a constant throughout his life, through an undergraduate degree in biology, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. project researching plant growth.
When he eventually bought his childhood home from his parents, he continued tending the garden until he moved last year. Once the weather warms up, he'll be out in his yard digging up a new one.
"We will have one, oh heck yeah," he said.
Means, 41, has spent a lifetime working with plants, growing them in his own garden, tackling research projects to help others grow them more efficiently and passing on what he's learned to his students.
Now, a lifetime rooted in agriculture is taking him on a new adventure — this time, to South America.
An associate professor of biology at Columbia College, Means will spend his fall in Uruguay on a Fulbright scholarship, where he'll collaborate with scientists on a project to improve soil quality and eventually make crops more affordable.
Means is the first full-time faculty member at Columbia College to receive a Fulbright while working at the school, said Terry Smith, executive vice president and dean for academic affairs.
"It's just a great validation for the quality of faculty that we have, that we can compete, because obviously, people at the very highest levels, the very top institutions are competing for those positions," science department chair Frank Somer said.
A small piece of the big picture
The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 to improve understanding between the citizens of the U.S. and other countries. The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsors the international exchange program that awards about 8,000 grants each year, according to the program’s website.
It currently operates in more than 155 countries and about 310,000 people have participated since it was founded.
Means received a scholarship to cover several months in Uruguay through the core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, which awards about 800 grants each year to U.S. faculty and professionals.
For him, that equals an autumn spent in Montevideo, splitting time between teaching a soil sciences class and researching effective ways to use nitrogen-fixing bacteria to improve crop production and reduce dependence on synthetic fertilizers at the National Agricultural Research Institute of Uruguay.
Years of agricultural research and teaching have prepared him for this work, and the Fulbright gives him a new global outlet for his knowledge.
Many fertilizers are produced using fossil fuels, he said. As fuel prices rise, so do fertilizer prices and transportation costs, causing food and food production prices to skyrocket beyond what subsistence farmers and impoverished people across the globe can afford to pay.
"It's not a matter of whether we can produce enough," he said. "That's a distribution problem, because we can produce plenty of food. But getting it to those people that are on the subsistence level — farmers, globally and producers — that's the folks that are going to be harmed the most."
"Wow," he said, quietly realizing the impact of his words, "That's sad to think about."
By improving soil quality using bacteria rather than fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, the institute's research could help farmers use the resources they already have to produce their crops, making food more affordable and hopefully knocking a dent in global poverty.
"Oftentimes, you feel like you're working on a very small project, but it helps to keep the big picture in mind, that everybody’s working together as a global community," he said.
Smith, who wrote a reference letter for Means' application, touted his dedication to teaching, research and experience in a foreign country as making him a prime candidate for the Fulbright. Means served in the Peace Corps in the late '90s.
"But really, I think, the other component of it is that what the Fulbright people are looking for is ambassadors, and somebody who can effectively, positively represent the United States," Smith said. "And he's just four for four with us."
Smith spent several months overseas in 1991 on a Fulbright to the United Kingdom, when he worked for Northeast Missouri State University. He helped with a project to improve academic assessment at the University of Portsmouth.
"When you leave, it's a better place," he said. "I know that sounds kind of grandiose, but the bottom line is that that's the goal."
Lifetime volunteer, seasoned researcher, accidental teacher
Spending several months in Uruguay will be the latest in a long strand of volunteering and research for Means.
His parents were dedicated volunteers, and he grew up in Columbia offering his time at Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen.
After finishing up his undergraduate degree at Southwest Missouri State University, he stepped out of college and into Guatemala to join the Peace Corps, where he worked on sustainable agriculture projects.
At the end of his two years overseas, he returned to his hometown to earn his graduate degrees at MU.
For his master's project, Means combined food waste from the MU dining halls with different micro-organisms to make compost that would improve plant growth. He tested the soil conditioners in the field at Bradford Research Farm and in the MU greenhouse.
"So it was working with sustainable agriculture, closing that nutrient cycle loop and reducing the amount of waste that was going to landfills while providing a useful product for crop production," he said.
He remained at MU to earn his doctorate for a project exploring how to use soil bacteria and fungi to improve crop growth in soybeans and corn. And then after finishing his degree, he returned to MU for several summers for an extension of his project.
Bob Kremer, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, worked with Means when he was a graduate and doctoral student at MU and jokingly called him an "occasional post-doc" for his work in the lab after graduation.
"Life is a learning experience for him," Kremer said.
While volunteering and agriculture have been constants in Means' life, he didn’t expect teaching to be.
In 2004, he'd just finished his Ph.D., needed a job and found an opening at Columbia College. He took the position.
And then he fell in love with the job, giving students the tools they need to shape their own futures. This is his ninth year at the school.
He teaches a variety of classes — botany, environmental science, microbiology, soil science — always focused on helping his students develop the skills they'll need to succeed after graduation.
"I often try to bring real world examples into the classroom, and that’s one of the components, but then two, why is this important?" he said, "Because if you don’t care about something, you’re not going to want to learn about it."
On a Monday morning in his upper-level soils class, he lectures about mineral levels in soil and how they contribute to plant growth. Between scrawling notes on the whiteboard and scrolling through a slide show, he pauses for brief moments to joke with his students, comparing cell structures to doughnuts or making occasional puns.
"He makes it fun," junior Erin Weires said. "Class is really light and airy, but his tests are still hard."
Means' years of teaching and research likely made him the most qualified individual for his fellowship in South America, Kremer said.
Flexibility now and overseas
Means leans back in the chair in his office at Columbia College, arms crossed over his grey sweater. Near a file cabinet rests a silver bike — he rides one to work almost every day.
He calls to one of his students in the hallway and asks what his classes are like.
A hesitation, then, "Funny?"
"Aww, I was hoping you’d say educational."
After his qualifications, Means' easygoing attitude is one of the first reasons Somer thinks he’ll be a perfect fit for his time in Uruguay.
"I think that flexibility will come in handy for him, and he’ll be able to deal with the different situations and personalities that he runs into," Somer said. "And he's just a winsome and charismatic guy that people just gravitate to."
As Means takes three of his passions — teaching, volunteering and sustainable agriculture — to South America this fall, he's heading into it with the same flexibility that landed him a spot as a teacher and that will give him the open-mindedness to come back home with a more global perspective.
"I don't have any specific things that I really want to learn, but there's a lot of cool things that could happen that I'd be happy about, but I don’t know what they are," he said. "Follow up when I come back."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.