“You can learn a lot here in a small amount of time.”

That is how Oglala Lakota College student Dillon Nelson described his summer doing undergraduate research in food science at South Dakota State University.

Through the Future Agriculture and Science Taskforce Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates (FAST REEU) fellowship program, Nelson worked with carrageenans, long-chain sulfated polysaccharides extracted from seaweed. These polysaccharides can be used to encapsulate nutraceuticals, vitamins, drugs, antimicrobials and flavoring in food products.

Nelson is among the first group of students to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program, which provides qualifying students a 10-week summer laboratory experience at SDSU, for which they receive a $6,000 stipend. In summer 2019, each student will do an industry internship.

“I would tell my peers to come experience the environment. Everyone here is uplifting and welcoming,” said the Pine Ridge, South Dakota, native. “It [SDSU] is a good place to be if you want to focus on your studies and education.”

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.

When SDSU Associate Professor of Biology and Microbiology Madhav Nepal, who coordinates the program, contacted him, Nelson admitted, “I wasn’t sure about biology and microbiology or food science.”

After working in the food science lab for more than two months, Nelson said, “I see how big an impact this scientific research can have.” Nelson completed his associate degrees in pre-engineering and Lakota language in fall 2018 and will finish his bachelor’s degree in Lakota studies with an emphasis in Indian law in spring 2019. He plans to continue his education in computer science and engineering.

“I cannot stress enough how much of a boost I gained from this summer program and how much confidence I gained in myself,” said Nelson. As a result, he has become more involved in college activities, including joining the OLC Student Senate.  “We have organized events for the student body that haven’t happened in years.”

Nelson’s faculty mentor, Assistant Professor Srinivas Janaswamy in the Department of Dairy and Food Science, said, “Dillon fit nicely into the team because of his eagerness to learn and positive attitude. He is highly focused and interested in the research.”

During Nelsons’ first few weeks at SDSU, he learned lab safety and became familiar with equipment and procedures. “When we went over chemical formulas and how to compute standard solutions and then we actually did it, that reinforced the calculations,” he said. “This cemented it in my brain better than just doing the math—and it’s more fun!”

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.

 “Working with these tiny pieces takes lots of patience,” Elfaruk said. “You need to be present,” Nelson explained. “But, unlike with coursework, you can focus on one thing and it’s a lot more fun.”

 “One of the major similarities I found at Dr. Janaswamy’s lab this summer with my lab partners and mentor was laughter,” Nelson said. One of the Lakota Oral stories teaches that “the first medicine given to the Lakota people was the ability to laugh and the ability to cry. Through these actions, we can self-heal,” he recalled. “Lightheartedness and laughter was always in the lab and it made me feel at home.”

Nelson continued, “I want to help my fellow students step outside their comfort zone and explore options off the reservation through internships or experiences at other colleges. There is a major gap between our communities and it is my belief that through science and technology we can bridge that gap.”