Funding graduate research today and in the future


Jerry and LaVonne Nielsen

Jerry and LaVonne Nielsen Establish Graduate Research Assistantship in Soil Science

Always underfoot, but not always understood, soil has been the substance and the passion of Jerry Nielsen’s 50-year career, most recently as a professor of pedology (soil science) in Montana State University’s College of Agriculture.

Jerry and his wife LaVonne recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and together they have travelled the world, including four years teaching at Kabul University in Afghanistan, and cross-country bicycling from Canada to Mexico and from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. They have been partners, spending countless hours in the field conducting research on soils in their natural environments, raising four daughters and teaching and mentoring generations of students.

In 2015, Jerry, LaVonne and others helped 4th grade students at Longfellow School in Bozeman with legislation that designated Scobey soil as the official state soil symbol of Montana. The effort took the couple full circle—LaVonne taught 4th grade while Jerry was working on his PhD—and enabled them to pass on their understanding and appreciation of soil to the next generation. The project is important in its symbolism, honoring the role that soil plays in our livelihood and well-being here in Montana.

As Emeritus Professor, Jerry and LaVonne also wanted to leave a legacy in the College of Agriculture that would continue to support basic soils research at the university.

“Soil tells us stories; layers represent the past, and you can read that. It’s important to understand our soil for its own sake, and trust that if we understand it, that will help us.”

For Jerry, supporting graduate students is incredibly meaningful. Jerry mentored numerous graduate students throughout his tenure at Montana State, and enjoyed working with them as they transitioned from student to soil scientist. “I knew I had succeeded when I would sit in on one of my students’ lectures and think ‘Hey, they did that better than I would have.’”

Over the years, 35 PhD and MS soil graduate student advisees became university professors, land managers, consultants, research leaders, conservation leaders, entrepreneurs, administrators and one even became the Governor of Montana. All have rewarding stories that begin with the soil.

The Nielsen Graduate Research Assistantship will continue this legacy. The assistantship in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences supports graduate students working with full-time faculty researching soil science in Montana. Jerry and LaVonne are now funding the assistantship through annual gifts. They have also made a provision in their estate plans that will support the endowment in the future.