A’maize’ing scholar

Dale Brunelle is first American Indian to earn doctorate in biology

Dale Brunelle

Dale Brunelle, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and native of Ft. Berthold, ND, became the first American Indian in UND history to earn a doctorate in biology at Thursday’s graduate commencement ceremony. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

A moment of pure joy.

That’s how William Sheridan describes hooding a new doctoral recipient at commencement.

“It never gets old,” said Sheridan, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biology. “It’s a moment of pure joy that is not sullied by any other consideration. It’s a thrilling event when a new scholar is born.”

Sheridan took the stage at Thursday’s graduate commencement ceremony when he hooded Dale Brunelle, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and native of Ft. Berthold, ND. He is the first American Indian in UND history to earn a doctorate in biology, according to the UND registrar’s office.

Brunelle was one of 260 graduate and professional students who received their degrees during Winter Commencement ceremonies Thursday. Two additional ceremonies were held Friday for the 610 undergraduate students eligible to graduate.

Dale Brunelle

Brunelle, whose doctoral work focused on the genetics of corn and the development and stages of maize embryo mutants, says he likes teaching and hopes to be a professor. He wants to find a teaching style that could be more effective with Native students. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Dr. Brunelle

As his wife, children and family members watched him cross the stage, Brunelle accepted the hood, his diploma, and his new title: Dr. Brunelle.

“It’s deeply satisfying to me that Dale’s goal has been achieved,” said Sheridan. “I have a deep sense of pride in him. He wanted to be a scientist. And now he is one.”

Brunelle said that the reality still hasn’t sunk in, but the feeling of walking across the stage was elation.

“I have a little trouble tooting my own horn,” said Brunelle.

Very few American Indians earn doctorates in the natural sciences, said Brunelle, adding that many choose to become nurses, physicians, or earn degrees in higher education, engineering, psychology and other fields.

Brunelle hopes to work in academia and help other American Indians.

“I like teaching and hope to be a professor,” he said. “I enjoy research, lab work, writing and teaching. I’d like to see if there’s a teaching style that works better with Natives, like the flipped classroom.”

His graduate work focuses on the genetics of corn and looking at the development and stages of maize embryo mutants.

“I’m looking at proteins in meristem development,” he explained. Meristems shape the plant, determining its layout, and allow plants to produce new organs.

He loves the variety of maize genetics.

“In the spring, we go outside and into the field, and we work long hours. Then there’s the lab aspect, and I get to work with DNA and dissect kernels. I use a confocal microscope – who doesn’t like to work with things that glow in the dark?”

Dale Brunelle

Brunelle celebrates getting his Ph.D. with his wife Mozelle and their family. He hopes to encourage young people in his community to pursue higher education. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

A bright future

Brunelle said the work, though tough, was worth it.

“Dr. Sheridan said I have a very substantial dissertation, and he says I have a bright future,” Brunelle said. “He sees all these great things happening for me. That’s why I didn’t stop until I earned the degree. I’m walking by faith, not by sight.”

Sheridan affirmed that Brunelle’s dissertation, which numbers 138 pages, is substantial.

“Getting his Ph.D. is an extraordinary event for him, our department and the University,” said Sheridan. “It takes a lot of hard work to get a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. Dale persisted, and that’s the most important characteristic for success in graduate school. It requires courage. It’s deeply satisfying to me that Dale’s goal has been achieved.”

Brunelle first came to UND in 1993 as part of the Upward Bound Program. He later earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, and said that earning his doctorate took nearly seven years.

“I like the work. It’s the writing that’s hard,” Brunelle quipped, citing an oft-spoken lament of graduate students everywhere.

But there were also cultural differences, some major, some minor.

“Back home, words mean different things,” he said. “They have the same sound but can be taken in a different way.”

Add scientific language to the mix.

“With Dr. Sheridan, it’s science on top of culture,” Brunelle said. “You never say ‘evolution’ unless you mean ‘evolution.’ You don’t say you ‘evolved’ on the issue.”

There were lighter moments, too.

“We have ongoing discussions about soil and dirt,” Brunelle said. “When I was a child, my grandma always told me to stop tracking dirt in the house, so we compromised. When it’s outside, it’s soil. Inside, tracked on the floor, it’s dirt!”

Brunelle hopes to help other American Indians earn degrees, and would like to speak to college students on reservations, or perhaps implement Lego Leagues there.

“I want to go to the reservation and do fun stuff with computers and encourage kids to go to school and have a career they like,” he said.

“What I tell Natives about biology is that if you can make it through Biology 151, you realize it gets easier. And the more you learn, the easier it is. The best thing is the huge range of things to do: ecology, genetics of plants or animals, systems, anatomy, bioinformatics. There are lots of different areas. The fun part is to be a specialist. You can become an expert.”