Brunelle plows new ground as American Indian researcherDale Brunelle has always wanted to know how things worked. Now he knows more than most about the genetic machinery that controls the growth of corn.
By: By Pamela Knudson , Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun
Dale Brunelle has always wanted to know how things worked. Now he knows more than most about the genetic machinery that controls the growth of corn.
A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, N.D., he will receive a Master of Science degree in biology today at the University of North Dakota’s winter commencement. He plans to continue his work at UND to earn a doctoral degree in genetics, said his mentor and advisor, Bill Sheridan, professor of biology.
Brunelle is the second American Indian at UND to earn the master’s degree with a thesis in biology, a more rigorous path than the usual master’s degree. He’ll also be the first to pursue a doctorate in biology.
“It’s very unusual for Native Americans to pursue degrees in the sciences,” Sheridan said.
In his graduate work, Brunelle has been studying how changing part of a chromosome in corn, or maize, affects plant development. He determines the effects of increasing or decreasing part of a chromosome by measuring height of the plant, length of the ear and leaf size, among other characteristics.
This is basic biological research that “will be valuable to interpreting other experiments and will aid us in understanding how genes control the growth of the plant,” Sheridan said.
Brunelle has always been interested in genetics, he said. “I like biology and I’m pretty decent in mathematics.”
He remembers, as a youth, reading about Gregor Mendel, the 19th century scientist who’s considered to be the “father of genetics.”
“Mendel was also a mathematician when he got involved in genetics,” Brunelle said.
A kind of kinship, spanning the centuries, was born.
Brunelle’s interest in science and his drive for an education was fostered by programs, including Upward Bound and the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program, that encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop academic and motivational skills.
When Brunelle was in tenth grade, UND Upward Bound representatives visited Belcourt, he said. He signed on for the program, which provides specialized classes and tutoring in the summer, and ended up enrolling for three consecutive years.
Sheridan said Indians students, especially those raised on reservations, have not had the opportunity to attend schools with a strong science orientation. Reservation schools don’t typically have adequate resources to recruit and retain science teachers — a lack that shows up in lower numbers of Indians seeking degrees in the hard sciences.
Long senior year
At UND, Brunelle found a mentor in Steven Ralph, assistant professor of biology, who put him to work on a study of plant genetics as a basis for poplar trees’ resistance to insect pests.
He worked 10 hours a week in Ralph’s lab, where he said “I did three billion electrophoresis gels.” That’s a technique for analyzing DNA strands, the genetic instructions inside cells, and separating them based on size.
“It took me forever to get my bachelor’s degree,” he said. He persisted over 15 years to earn the undergraduate degree in biology at UND in 2009.
He said he often teased the department secretary that he should “be awarded tenure as a student for one-and-a-half decades.”
To qualify for graduate school, Brunelle needed two straight years of good grades in science courses, Brunelle said. He attained this goal with the encouragement of Sheridan and Ralph and other faculty members.
“Dale is fortunate to be supported by the National Science Foundation,” Ralph said. “The NSF Plant Genome Research Program is a big part of his success.
“NSF funding makes it possible for students, like Dale, who have families and other life challenges, to succeed by allowing them to focus on their studies,” he said, “and not be distracted with worries about paying bills.”
It’s quite a task to go from undergraduate student life to a professional scientist, said Sheridan. “I’m proud of Dale’s accomplishment, and I look forward to working with him as he works toward the Ph.D. degree.”
Looking ahead, Brunelle sees himself as a professor, possibly at a tribal college, he said, and conducting research “to show them that it’s not so different, it’s not beyond their grasp.”
He said he would prefer to stay in state. “This is where my family is,” he said. “I’m related to a third, maybe half, of the people on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.”
He and his wife, Mozelle, who is from New Town, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Reservation, have three children and are expecting a daughter next month.
In addition to her arrival, he’s anticipating the next phase of his studies, working to earn the Ph.D. degree, he said.
“I always wanted to be a professor,” he said, remembering elementary school. “When teachers passed out the form that asks, ‘Would you rather be rich, famous or smart?’ I’d always check ‘smart.’”
Pamela Knudson is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.