WLHS alum meets Cousteau

Mary Atkinson · Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Over 50 years ago, then teenager Ken Nealson enjoyed high school, sports and singing in the small farming community of West Liberty.

Today, he is a professor at University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Sciences in Los Angeles, Calif. His work has allowed him to dive into the waters of the Caribbean, study a lake in Siberia and work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

Though involved with many prestigious organizations, Nealson credited much of what he learned from West Liberty.

“I learned how to enjoy and participate in music and how to enjoy working (in West Liberty),” Nealson said. “If you know these things, the rest is easy.”

True to his words, Nealson, who graduated from WLHS in 1961, attended the University of Chicago where he earned his Masters of Science in botany and a Ph.D. in microbiology. From there, he worked post-graduate at Harvard until 1973, when he landed his first job teaching at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif.

“I decided early on I didn’t want to spend my life in a research lab, so I aimed for marine (aquatic) science. That took me to the study of light emitting organisms and a lot of underwater work around the world.”

He said he collected light emitting fish from diving expeditions that are still on exhibit in many aquariums.

“Fun, fun, fun,” he said.

During one of his missions, and while on a ship in the Gulf of California, bad weather forced his team to seek the lee of an island. In that same lee was another ship - the famous Calypso. Nealson said famous scientist Jacques Cousteau was on board.

According to Nealson, the two met and enjoyed time sipping wine and singing songs.

“J.C. was a dedicated explorer and protector of the sea and its life,” Nealson said. “He was a charismatic and wonderful man who made the world a better place.” Cousteau died in 1997.

Another venture for Nealson was studying lakes and cleaning up pollution in Wisconsin. He also traveled to Russia several times to study with scientists on Lake Baikal in Siberia. Lake Baikal is known as the world’s most voluminous freshwater lake.

“I learned to speak ‘survival Russian’ and to read well enough to get around and learned a lot of Russian songs which endeared me to all,” Nealson said. “See what I meant by music being important?”

Nealson said he hopes he never stops enjoying singing and playing his guitar and banjo.

Currently, he is working on a project that involves drilling nearly 1.5 miles below the Earth’s surface to study bacteria.

He also continues to teach and run a research lab, developing methods to combat pollution.

“I don’t plan to retire as long as I continue to have fun,” he said.

Ken currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife. The couple has four adult children. His mother, Lucille Nealson, sister, Judy Nealson, and brother, Ed Nealson, all live in West Liberty. His father is the late Otto Nealson.
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