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Derek Barisas Awarded Fulbright to Iceland

Washington and Lee senior Derek Barisas, of Fort Collins, Colo., has received a Fulbright Study/Research Grant to Iceland.

Barisas’ Fulbright grant project is “Evolutionary Status of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit.” He will be doing genetic testing of the black-tailed godwit under the supervision of Dr. Snæbjörn Pálsson at the University of Iceland.

“The Icelandic subspecies of the godwit could be at the rare point of becoming a new species,” said Barisas. “Although understanding of how species develop is the heart of evolutionary biology, relatively little is known about the process.”

Barisas’ first trip to Iceland was, as he said, “by accident,” but it’s why he chose Iceland for his Fulbright research grant. An extended layover in Reykjavic occurred when he was on his way to a W&L Spring Term 2012 course in Stockholm. It opened his eyes to the extraordinary genetics that Iceland has and to the unique biological histories of its inhabitants.

Barisas explains that due to geographic isolation, settling an island is an event that favors the formation of a new species, known as speciation. “Now is the opportune time to study the Icelandic subspecies of the black-tailed godwit because its population is increasing and moving into new habitats. Analyzing the genetic makeup of the godwit population in Iceland may clarify the origin of Icelandic avian diversity and the process of speciation.”

“Derek’s many research experiences make him well suited for his proposed project studying the genetics of the Icelandic black-tailed godwit,” said Professor of Chemistry Fred LaRiviere. “His intellectual curiosity extends well beyond science, so I know that he will also immerse himself in as much Icelandic culture as possible. He is a wonderful and unique individual and is well deserving of this Fulbright grant.”

Barisas, a biochemistry major, belongs to Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Epsilon Delta Honor Society (pre-medical), Beta Beta Beta Honor Society (biological) and the American Chemical Society. This year, he is the director of public relations for WLUR, and he has hosted a weekly radio show since 2009.

He is working as a research assistant in Riviere’s chemistry lab and has co-written two publications with faculty, staff and students that are in various areas of publication. He has presented three posters at various intramural research poster sessions and has been an R.E. Lee Summer Scholar.

Barisas received the James Lewis Howe Award for distinguished chemistry students in the Blue Ridge Section of the American Chemical Society, and the Todd Jones Scholarship in 2011, a paid scholarship to travel and study music or dance.

“Derek is the epitome of a true liberal arts student: he has wide-ranging interests and a real love of learning,” said Professor of Biology Paul Cabe.  “He’s added a lot to my Spring Term course that he’s taking right now simply by his curiosity. His questions encourage questions from other students. Derek is a great person and will represent the United States and Washington and Lee very well when he is in Iceland.”

Sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program.

News Contact:
Julie Cline
News Writer