Luke Naeher: From Ivy League to the SEC
by Murray Poole
Luke Naeher with his wife, Juli
Although Luke Naeher attended those pillars of academia – Cornell, Harvard and Yale – he was anything but a bookworm as Naeher’s days growing up on Long Island were spent on numerous athletic fields.
And Naeher’s rich love of sports and of course his stellar academic background, too, is a big reason why this University of Georgia professor today serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Georgia Athletic Association.
Naeher, who is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health Science which is in the UGA College of Public Health, earned a B.S. in Biology at Cornell in 1989, received his M.S. in Environmental Health Sciences at Harvard in1994 and then
earned his Ph.D in Epidemiology and Public Health at
Yale in 1998.
“I was really blessed,” said Naeher. “I enjoyed
school and had a vision of being a professor and teaching
for a career. Our College of Public Health at UGA
is now in its seventh year of existence. It opened its
doors on January 1 of 2005. I was here five years before
that in the College of Agriculture and Environmental
Sciences as I started at UGA in July 2001.”
Now, back to those athletic pursuits Naeher enjoyed
as a high school and college student.
“I played football, basketball, and lacrosse from
10th through 12th grade at Babylon High School,
which was a pretty small school in New York,” he related.
“Playing three sports was the norm for most of
the boys in my grade. I loved basketball, played football
to try to get in shape for basketball, and fell in love
with lacrosse as we went from a club my 10th grade
year to a varsity program my senior year. In college, I
was blessed to have the opportunity to play basketball
and run track at The King’s College, a small Christian
college in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. We competed at the
NAIA Division III level.
“As an average athlete who was trying to be a serious
student, the level and balance of sports and academics
available to me at King’s was perfect for me at
that stage in my life,” Naeher continued. “I loved every
minute of my time in the gym and on the track, but
also loved every minute of my time in the classroom.
I transferred from King’s to Cornell University my junior
year and played one year of varsity ‘B’ team. I loved
playing lacrosse at Cornell but after one season, decided
to shift gears my senior year and focus more on
my studies, while enjoying countless evening bike rides
along Cayuga Lake – if the roads were not too buried
in snow and ice – and the near daily noontime pickup
basketball on campus. Today, I try to run and swim to
stay healthy, and I play with and coach my children
every chance I get.”
In addition to his classes on the Georgia campus,
Naeher teaches an Environmental Health course at the
Pacific Rim Campus during Summer Session II.
“It’s a blessing I’ve had for a lot of years now, first
to teach an environmental science class out in the Black
Hills of South Dakota for eight years and more recently
for the last six years to teach an environmental health
class out on Whidby Island, which is one of the most
beautiful places in the world,” Naeher said. “It’s about
90 minutes northwest of Seattle. The natural beauty is
stunning but beyond that it’s also a setting where you’re
with sharp undergraduate students from across the
country and Canada for five weeks where you’re in a
setting where you live with them basically and you get
a chance to have them study with you. One day we
may be climbing a mountain and another day we may
be out in a boat in the Puget Sound and another just
on a long hike through an old-growth forest and all
the while just teaching them about the different aspects
of environmental science and environmental health,
and at the same time with my family out there sort of
creeping around the rocks and trees and being a part
of the mix.”
Luke and his wife Juli have six children: Madison,
15; Luke Joseph, 13; Sam, 9; Raegan, 7; Jack, 4,
and Jed (Jedidiah), 2.
In the following question-and-answer session,
Luke Naeher talks more about his background and his
role on the Georgia athletic board.
What is your occupation?
I’m an associate professor in the Department of
Environmental Health Science. I teach the core masters
in public health environmental health science class so
that’s a class all our graduate students take and I teach
that in the fall over on the new health science campus,
which has been pretty exciting this year. That’s got 58
students this year, last year 74 so that’s a pretty good
sized class. I also teach a freshman Odyssey seminar
and that’s one of these classes that every freshman at the
university has to take and the size of mine is 13 and,
as fate would have it, this year I have two student-athletes
in it which has been fun, one a young man from
the basketball team and the other a young lady on the
equestrian. I teach that one hour a week and then in
the spring I teach an undergraduate and graduate-level
air quality class.
How many years have you served on the
UGA athletic board?
This is my first year so I’m new on the university
council and that’s a three-year term, and I’m new on the
athletic board for a three-year term also. I’m on there
as an elected faculty representative.
Where did you grow up and what made it
I grew up in Babylon, New York which is about
halfway out on Long Island on the South Shore. It’s
real close to the ocean which is one of the things I probably
remember most about it. What makes it special is
it’s got some of the best beaches in the world. When I
go home now regardless of the time of the year, one of
the things I’ll do is take a drive out and spend a fair
amount of time out on the beach and on the shore.
And then I spent my college years more in upstate New
York, a couple of years in Ithaca at Cornell which is
beautiful in a different way. It’s very rural, it’s got beautiful
mountains and lakes and, in fact, the feel of our
campus here in Athens is very similar to the feel of Cornell.
They both are old land grant colleges and there’s
a real similar flavor across both campuses actually.
What has been the most exciting part for
you serving on UGA’s athletic board?
Two things come to mind. One, I’ve had a chance
to travel with the athletic department the last few weeks
and I’ve had a chance to get to know (athletic director)
Greg McGarity and the team under him and I tell you
it’s an amazing group. I think Greg’s approach to running
the athletic department and the way that the men
and women are working with him is just an impressive
operation. And one thing that’s been really fun for
me is just to get to know them, learn what they do and
just see what an amazing job they’re doing. And the
other piece, I’ve worked with the athletic department
for years as one of their instructors for their freshman
seminars for the student-athletes. I’ve probably taught
five or six of those over the years and have had a real
good chance to know Carla Williams, Ted White and
Rhonda Kilpatrick and the team that’s over in the
Rankin Smith Academic Center and that group is just
amazing. They’ve very good at what they do and are
very committed to the student-athlete.
What has been the most exciting aspect of
For me, one of the things I enjoyed as a graduate
student was the work I did in the developing world. In
environmental health we look at exposures in the environment
and how they impact human health and
the developing world offers an opportunity to look at
those exposures where they’re usually orders of magnitude
higher and more dangerous than anything we
see here in the United States. And so I’ve traveled for
many years – I’ve been blessed, I’ve had opportunities
to travel to Guatemala, the Philippines, Ukraine, Peru
and Chili, other corners of the world. And the most
exciting thing for me right now in my job is continuing
to do research in those areas and taking my students
from the University of Georgia here with me.
What do you think are the biggest challenges
for Georgia athletics in the near future?
I’ll say this from the perspective of it being my
first year on the board, so it’s mostly through the lens
of a faculty member who’s worked with student-athletes
in the capacity of a professor for the last decade or
so. But right now, I see the biggest challenge, and it’s a
good challenge, the athletic department is a well-oiled
machine and it’s under great leadership right now. I
think if you look at how things are going for the student-
athletes, you couldn’t ask for a better setup to try
and help the student-athletes succeed as students and
on the field. I think they’re doing the right things and
they’re doing it the right way so I think the challenge
is, how do you stay innovative, how do you continue
to try and do things better and how do you to continue
to be as strong as they are right now, and my
sense is under Greg’s leadership I think they are on a
really good track.
How has the knowledge from your occupation
helped in the betterment of UGA athletics?
I’ve had several of the student-athletes in my
classroom over the years and I’ve had several of the
student-athletes from a range of sports work with me
one-on-one through independent study or research
over the years, and I had one of the young men on the
basketball team travel with me for research down to
Peru several years ago. I think teaching them in the
classroom, teaching them in their research environment
and teaching them through study abroad, I think
that’s one of the ways my field, my work has helped the
Your favorite UGA sports moment?
There’s really too many to recall, but the common
theme is that I enjoy cheering for the Dawgs –
with my wife and children – in South Carolina for
men’s basketball or football, at Sanford for countless
exciting GA football games, men’s and women’s basketball
and gymnastics at Stegeman, baseball at Foley,
soccer and softball at their amazing facilities, volleyball,
swimming, track practice, and equestrian. But all
that said, I believe my personal highlight was watching
the Dawgs beat Florida weekend before last. We
watched this as a family from our home in Athens and
it was just an awesome day, capped off by an incredible
game and win!