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Undergraduate fellowship leads Nelson to doctoral work at SDSU

Bijaya Pradhan, left , and Dillon Nelson add enzyme to plastic cap container
Master’s student Bijaya Pradhan, left, and doctoral student Dillon Nelson learn to extract DNA from chokecherry leaves. Both began their graduate work this spring and will be doing plant genetics research under the guidance of Madhav Nepal, associate professor of biology and microbiology.

Two years ago, Pine Ridge native Dillon Nelson, then a senior at Oglala Lakota College, stepped outside his comfort zone—he spent the summer doing undergraduate research at South Dakota State University.

Now, he’s back in Brookings—this time to earn his doctoral degree.

Nelson was among the first group of students to participate in the Future Agriculture and Science Taskforce Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program offers qualifying students a 10-week summer laboratory experience on campus and then an industry internship the following summer.

“I cannot stress enough how much of a boost I gained from this summer program and how much confidence I gained in myself,” Nelson said. “I learned to go out of my comfort zone to do things I know I am capable of doing but would not otherwise do. I would not be (in graduate school) here without the FAST-REEU—I highly recommend it.”

Students interested in the FAST REEU fellowship can find more information at https://www.sdstate.edu/biology-and-microbiology/fast-reeu-fellowships. Applications are due March 15.

“I encourage my classmates to apply for this fellowship program,” he said. “There is room for Native American students in these programs.”

Nelson grinds chokecherry leaves using mortar and pestle
Doctoral student Dillon Nelson grinds dried chokecherry leaves from which he will extract DNA.

Working on food science research

In summer 2018, Nelson worked on food science research to use polysaccharides extracted from seaweed to encapsulate nutraceuticals, vitamins, drugs, antimicrobials and flavoring in food products.

“Dillon fit nicely into the team because of his eagerness to learn and positive attitude,” said Nelson’s research adviser Srinivas Janaswamy, an assistant professor of dairy and food science.

Nelson, guided by doctoral student Mohamad Elfaruk, purified the seaweed extract and prepared solutions to stretch oriented fibers. The researchers added different ions and adjusted the drying time to enhance the fibers’ encapsulation capacity.

“I learned how big an impact this scientific research can have,” Nelson said. In addition, the once-a-week professional development workshops helped him develop life skills.

Through this experience, Nelson said, “I gained a lot of confidence.” At OLC, he took on a leadership role through the student senate. “We organized events for the student body that haven’t happened in years,” including a homecoming celebration and a volleyball tournament.

Interning at Sanford Underground Lab

After completing his bachelor’s degree in Indian law and engineering mathematics, Nelson delved into dark matter physics last summer through an internship at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. There he worked on the LUX-ZEPLIN experiment, a collaboration among scientists from 30 institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal and Russia, led by the Department of Energy’s Berkeley National Laboratory.

“I learned a lot about particle physics,” Nelson said. “It is good to learn from people who are so dedicated to their field of study and to see the discipline it takes.”

 He and another intern helped assemble the outer covering for the 9-foot-tall time projection chamber, which will detect dark matter. “We were cleaning and prescreening materials and putting together some of the detector. Every piece had to be screened and tested to account for any radon,” Nelson explained.

“The outer covering helps keep radon from creating unnecessary nuclear/electron recoil inside the time projection chamber, where only WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles) should hopefully be creating nuclear recoil,” he said. “It was pretty fascinating to be a part of that international collaboration.”

Returning for graduate work

This spring, Nelson began combining his background in mathematics with biology, under the tutelage of associate professor of biology and microbiology Madhav Nepal, who coordinates the FAST-REEU program. Nepal’s research group analyzes biological data—DNA, RNA and protein sequences—from native and crop plant species.

“Dillon comes with a strong background in math and Indian law. He also brings his passion for learning computer programming to analyze biological data,” Nepal said. For his doctoral project, Nelson will develop genetic resources for indigenous medicinal and food plants used by American Indians.

Nelson said he hopes to bridge the gap between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge. “I believe the two paradigms are parallel and intertwine with each other.”

This semester, Nelson is taking two bioinformatics courses at SDSU. During spring break, he will also receive advanced bioinformatics training at a National Institutes of Health workshop in Washington, D.C.

“SDSU is a welcoming environment with lots of support for Native American students,” said Nelson, pointing to the Wokini Initiative and the new American Indian Student Center. “It’s a good place to be.”