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Wokini Gave Grad Student Direction

Derek Brandis with Campanile in the Background

Derek Brandis’ academic career follows more the path of the Missouri River than Interstate 90. His path from an incoming SDSU freshman to earning his bachelor’s degree in 2009, a master’s degree in 2013 and a doctorate in 2022 has been a long, winding one with a few dam-like blocks.

“Don’t feel like you have to rush or compare yourself to others or feel intimidated that you’re not as far along as others because your path could lead to something you really enjoy that you wouldn’t have experienced if you did rush yourself and try to get done right away,” he said about his route to the doctorate.

Brandis admitted he did not know what to major in when he arrived at SDSU after graduating from Winner High School.

“As an undergrad, I took some math and science classes. I was a math major at one point and then switched to pharmacy and then to chemistry,” he said. “When I finally graduated, I was trying to figure out if I wanted to go into pharmacy again or try graduate school.

“One of the lab coordinators that I knew pretty well in the chemistry department, Dr. (Ron) Hirko, mentioned I should apply to graduate school,” Brandis continued. “I looked at it as an opportunity that, if I got in, I could decide between pharmacy or grad school. But when I started grad school, it was more or less I still didn’t know … I was just not sure what I wanted to do.”

Change of plans

At the time, Brandis liked the aspect of teaching and chose the chemistry education route. This required getting a master’s degree in one subfield of chemistry, which he completed in 2013. He then began pursuit of his doctorate. However, that soon changed when he accepted a full-time job.

While working, Brandis decided he wanted something different from doing similar routines each day.

Change of plans, II

With that mindset, Brandis decided to eliminate the nagging feeling that he should have finished his doctorate. He talked with Doug Raynie M.S. ’83, who leads the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and his advisers, professors Matt Miller and Jihong Cole-Dai, about it. Brandis was readmitted to the graduate school and returned to complete his doctorate.

“It’s one of those things where it wasn’t fluid and constantly changing, but there were parts that I wasn’t sure about what I was doing so I stopped at one point,” Brandis said. “I got a little more focused in the last couple of years and knew I wanted to teach and to do research.”

Unfortunately, family matters slowed the path to the doctorate but Brandis was able to persevere thanks to support from friends and the chemistry department.

Wokini Scholar

On the Ph.D. path, he applied to be a Wokini Scholar, a program that was not available during his first degrees.“I also wanted to be able to help out other Native students that may be interested in STEM, to show how they can go through this process that they maybe see as difficult,” Brandis said.

Being part of the first Wokini Scholar cohort has helped him in ways beyond the financial support.

“It’s really kind of neat to be in that first cohort and be part of this really supportive group that’s graduating and serving as role models for other students,” Brandis said, adding there are numerous activities available for students at the American Indian Student Center. “The AISC is a place to study, hang out or just hang with people who had similar experiences that you had growing up. The community is one of the best things about it.”

Dissertation work, defense

Brandis will wrap up the final work on his doctorate this summer.

“It took me so long to get to this point. It was not a straight, narrow path, but it’s one of those deals where, if I hadn’t gone through all of that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have figured out my path to my Ph.D.,” he said.

“While I didn’t know what I was doing at times, it’s one of those things where I enjoyed the path I was on. I had a bunch of people support me on the way and while it took a little bit longer than I expected, I wouldn’t have changed it one bit.”