Robert G. Bruton grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana in a family that, like many others, was severely challenged by the rising college tuition costs. He is not a Native American, but he chose to attend Salish Kootenai Tribal College in Pablo, Montana, in part because of its reasonable cost.
He knew he liked chemistry and his grades were good enough to qualify him to serve as a science and math tutor for fellow students. The school was one of the few tribal colleges nationwide that offered four-year bachelor’s degrees. But as a first-year student, Bruton was like a lot of other people – he wasn’t quite sure what direction his life would take.
One day, some students who came to him for tutoring mentioned a USDA program that would pay for his tuition at a four-year college of his choice. It also would guarantee him summer internships at federal research laboratories where he would receive practical scientific training.
He applied and was accepted into the USDA 1994 Tribal Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (1994 TLGCU) Program. The program is designed to help students at tribal colleges – Native Americans as well as students from other backgrounds – get training and internships that will equip them to work in fields related to science and technology. The program is for the nation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities, so anyone who attends those schools is eligible, regardless of ethnicity. Students apply through a USDA administrative process and once accepted, the student is selected by a host USDA agency.
USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) selected Bruton for the program. He completed two years at the tribal college and transferred to Washington State University in Pullman. Bruton spent his next three summers interning with ARS scientists, where he helped them search for ways to control parasitic diseases in livestock and poultry.
“The program opened up a whole new set of doors in terms of my options for the future,” Bruton said.
Bruton graduated from Washington State in 2014 and is now a full-time biological sciences laboratory technician at ARS’s Chemistry Research Unit in Gainesville, Florida, where he is part of a prominent team searching for ways to control fruit flies and other pests that threaten some of our most important agricultural products.
He is developing skills that are likely to be in demand for years to come, while he works in a field that will become more important as the impacts of a changing climate and the world’s population grow. He plans to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Florida.
“It’s a good field of research, and I do get tremendous satisfaction out of knowing that the work I’m doing is part of a scientific effort to protect the world’s food supply,” Bruton says.