Dr. Thomas Bultman, professor emeritus of biology at Hope College, has received a Fulbright-University of Turku Scholar Award to conduct research in Finland that he hopes will one day enhance food security around the world.

The dilemma that Bultman is addressing, he explains, goes something like this:  In agriculture pursued on a large scale, it’s most practical to plant and harvest a single crop in a field.  A risk in that practice, though, is that when it comes to pests like insects, the entire field can be decimated if that single crop appeals to them.

Bultman is seeking a way to provide the best of both worlds, meaning the efficiency of a single crop (monocultural) and the security that can follow from having more than one (bicultural, tricultural, etc.).  His focus is on grass that is grown for grazing for livestock, which he noted accounts for some 70% of agricultural land globally.

He’s building on work that he’s been conducting for more than 35 years, studying the relationship between different types of grass and different types of fungi that grow inside grass.  Some of those fungi produce alkaloids, chemicals that protect the grass from predators.  “In essence, the plant has a natural insecticide living inside of it,” he explained.

With different types of fungi providing protection against different types of insects, Bultman is going to explore the effectiveness of having different varieties of the fungus in a single species of grass in the same field.  “It could be planted the same way and harvested in the same way,” he said. “We could effectively have a bi-culture out there.”

His research will use fungi that produce alkaloids that are harmful to insects but not people and animals.  The approach, he said, would also eliminate the use of pesticides.

“I’m excited about it. I think it has potential,” Bultman said. “I think it could have a major impact on agricultural production in the world. That remains to be seen, but that’s the hope.”

He will be in Turku, which is in the southwest corner Finland, from January through June of 2025 through the Fulbright-University of Turku Scholar Award.  He’ll be working with two researchers at the university, the husband-and-wife team of Kari Saikkonen and Marjo Helander.  He’ll also be teaching classes while in Finland.

Bultman has been conducting research on different aspects of the relationship between grasses and fungi since the latter 1980s.  Through the years, he’s received multiple external grants in support of his work, including from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, and has traveled to France and Poland for his research in addition to studying species in North America.  Among other professional activity, he is a member of the editorial board for the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Fungal Ecology.  He is a 1978 Hope graduate, and holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. from Arizona State University.

He is the second Hope biologist in three years to go abroad through a Fulbright.  Virologist Dr. Benjamin Kopek, associate professor of biology, received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award that enabled him to spend the 2022-23 academic year at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France.

Bultman’s time in Finland will be part of an active retirement.  He retired at the end of the fall 2023 semester after teaching at Hope since 2001.  Through the college’s Office of Alumni and Family Engagement, he led an educational tour to Costa Rica in February for alumni and friends of Hope, and later this spring he plans to lead students to Costa Rica through a Hope May Term course.

The Fulbright-University of Turku Scholar Award program is part of the global Fulbright program led by the U.S. Department of State in partnership with more than 160 countries worldwide.  The award is jointly funded by the University of Turku and the Fulbright Finland Foundation, the latter of which is an independent, not-for-profit based in Helsinki, Finland.  The foundation seeks to promote a wider exchange of knowledge and professional talents through educational contacts between Finland and the United States, and to support the internationalization of education and research in Finland, and help U.S. and Finnish institutions create linkages.