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Graduating master’s student Jonathan Lucas traded his military fatigues and boots for wetsuits and waders to return to school and earn a master’s degree in marine sciences.

Jonathan Lucas stands in front of a body of water.
Jonathan Lucas

After a decade in the Marine Corps, Jonathan Lucas had achieved most of the things he was hoping to as a young infantry officer.

He had been placed in charge of platoons of 40 people, served as a company commander, led Marines through deployments and moved up the ranks.

Lucas also had a growing family and a desire to return to the world of science that had fascinated him since he was a child. So, at 32 years old, he traded his military fatigues and boots for wetsuits and waders to return to school and earn a master’s degree in marine sciences from Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“As I thought long term about what I was interested in, I realized I wanted to be more involved in science, conservation and understanding the natural environment in which we live, particularly the coastal environment,” Lucas said. “My interests were changing. That’s what I knew I wanted to do, and it was the time to do it.”

As a graduate student at Carolina, Lucas has spent much of his time at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, working alongside associate professor Joel Fodrie on oyster reefs and coastline restoration projects. While that may seem like a far jump from leading Marines, it was a return to Lucas’s passion.

Science and service

Lucas grew up around water.

A native of Waldorf, Maryland, he spent his youth surrounded by the rivers that flow into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay — the largest estuary in the country — and saw firsthand the importance of these habitats.

“I always enjoyed fishing and any chance that I had to go out on the Chesapeake or the Potomac River and the other tributaries the feed into the bay,” he said. “I really enjoyed that as a younger kid.”

Those experiences also helped fuel his childhood interest in science, which eventually led him to Bryan College to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology. He continued to weave the coastal waters into his work as an undergrad with an environmental sciences internship working for the Maryland state fisheries service.

But while in college, Lucas felt called to pursue something different from his science studies and joined the Marines, attending officer candidate school the summer before his senior year. He wanted to experience something new and travel the world.

“I wanted to graduate and do something exciting,” he said. “I was in high school when 9/11 happened. Patriotism and military service were big on people’s minds at that time. I think that influenced my decisions.”

Lucas was commissioned into the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant upon graduating with his biology degree and spent the next year training before being assigned to lead a platoon as an infantry officer.

During his 10 years in the Marines, he achieved his goal of seeing the world, traveling to 12 countries, including a deployment to Afghanistan. He eventually was promoted to captain and charged as a company commander, where he oversaw multiple platoons.

Though appreciative of all the experiences he had in the military, Lucas began feeling called back to science. He fully transitioned out of the military in 2018 to return to the academic life he put on pause a decade prior.

Becoming a marine scientist

Lucas’s final duty station with the Marines was at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he was introduced to our state’s coastal waters and bumped into students from the nearby UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City. Though he had already known he would be returning to college, his path to Carolina was solidified when he met an IMS student who gave him a lead on a contact at the IMS lab.

“I actually hadn’t looked too closely at Carolina up to that point,” Lucas said. “But I reached out and made contact. I was very fortunate because the lab just happened to be beginning a project that lined up perfectly with my research interests. Here I am, graduating three years later. Carolina was a great fit for me, and I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity that I did.”

To get his feet wet after years away from the field, Lucas worked as a field tech at IMS the summer before enrolling at Carolina in 2018 to begin work on his master’s. Though the transition back to life as a student had a few speedbumps, Lucas quickly became comfortable in his new setting.

“It was a big change. It’s a very different lifestyle,” he said. “Having not been in the academic environment for 10 years, I was certainly rusty on some of the things that I had learned at one point as an undergrad. There was a learning curve and catching up to speed period. But the marine sciences department in Chapel Hill and the Institute of Marine Sciences are really welcoming places, and I’m very happy to have landed where I did.”

In addition to classes through the marine sciences department, Lucas pursued his interest in marine habitats by getting involved with an oyster restoration project outside of Camp Lejeune. He examined the oyster population and how water quality and salinity were impacting oysters in the restoration project. The work became the core of his master’s thesis.

As he gears up to graduate this weekend with a master’s degree, he’s preparing for a career where he can apply his marine science research to help communities and protect marine habitats.

“There are a lot of environmental management decisions that are being made – applying principles I’ve learned here at Carolina –  every single day in local, state and federal government,” he said. “I like the idea of using my degree and my knowledge in an applied management focus, addressing ecological issues that communities are grappling with. And it’s not just here in North Carolina. These same human impacts on coastal ecosystems that we face in North Carolina, they’re facing in the Gulf of Mexico and all over both the East and West Coasts.”

By Brandon Bieltz, University Communications

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