A few years ago a rare autoimmune disease threatened Kristine Brenneman's life. Because the treatment required her to undergo chemotherapy and steroid treatments, she decided to take a break from teaching and research.

Brenneman (pictured left), a Choctaw who never considered becoming a scientist until later in her career, considered her medical condition only a temporary setback, and in the end she defeated it. For the past 10 years she has held her own as the sole woman, minority, and environmental microbiologist in the Fisheries Biology Department at Humboldt State University (HSU) in Arcata, California. Her past experiences helped her realize the importance of being a scientist and a mentor, and she currently uses her expertise to help manage natural resources and to bring women and minorities, especially Native Americans, into science.

A New Career Path

Growing up in California in the 1960s, Brenneman considered becoming a nurse, a telephone operator, or a housewife; these were the only jobs she knew about that were considered appropriate for a woman. After high school, she casually moved through different jobs. Working as a medical assistant sparked enough interest in science to motivate her to go to college when her family moved to Arizona.

Brenneman so enjoyed her science courses at Phoenix Community College and Arizona State University in Tempe that she wanted to continue learning. She completed her B.S. in biology in 1982 and moved on to a master's, and then a Ph.D., at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she fell in love with microbiology--and her future husband, Edward.

After receiving her Ph.D., she did postdoctoral work at the University of Nevada's Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies in Las Vegas. There she provided information on the safety of using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. Brenneman examined the microbial ecology of groundwater to determine whether nuclear waste from the Nevada nuclear test site at Yucca Mountain could travel to Death Valley National Monument and Ashland Meadows wetland via groundwater. Although her results were inconclusive, she realized that being a scientist gave her a deep sense of satisfaction.

Also during her postdoc years, the Department of Energy invited her to participate in a program that provided high school teachers with research experience. Brenneman mentored two teachers. This experience proved to be a great preparation for her future.

Part of the Team

In 1994, Brenneman landed a job at HSU that required her to teach limnology in the Fisheries Biology Department and direct the Limnology and Wastewater Utilization Program, a joint project by HSU and the city of Arcata. She was happy with the position but felt isolated because she was a double minority: the only full-time female and person of color in her department. Some of her male students weren't comfortable having a female professor. The fact that she didn't fish or take part in other traditional activities of scientists in the field didn't help either, she says.

But she did her job well, and everyone adjusted in time. "I gained their respect," she says, "and I respected them too. It's a two-way street."

A serious illness gave her another opportunity to prove her mettle. In 2000, Brenneman discovered that she had a rare autoimmune disease, which eventually left her bedridden and nearly killed her. She finally made a successful return to work, in her second attempt, after 2 years of drug therapy. "I think that's what it took to become part of the department. ... They were so wonderful, doing anything that they could to help with my recovery," she adds.

Sharing Her Wisdom

Ten years after she began working at HSU, Brenneman is still the only woman and minority working full-time on the faculty in her department. As director of the Limnology and Wastewater Utilization Program, she oversees projects for Arcata, such as monitoring the water quality of local creeks and raising salmon and trout in a mixture of wastewater and bay water. Her ties with the city of Arcata have led to an array of research projects and financial support for students who work in her lab. Brenneman actively recruits minorities and women to her lab, and students such as Elisa Soltren, a native of Puerto Rico, have benefited from these opportunities. Soltren is doing water-quality research with Brenneman and considering joining the master's program at HSU in fisheries biology.

Throughout her years as a scientist Brenneman has shared her expertise with Native American communities. For example, Brenneman is currently on sabbatical and dedicates several hours each week to a water quality certification program, so she can certify members of the Hupa Tribe in northern California to make them self-sufficient in processing water samples.

Even when she's not on sabbatical, Brenneman's research and training are focused on helping Native Americans. She hopes her Native American students will return to their reservation after completing their education to help their tribes better manage natural resources. Scott Aikin, a former student of Brenneman's, did his research at his reservation in Kansas. "It was a step far above what I think would be normally done by a graduate adviser, in terms of supporting me as a Native American," says Aikin, an enrolled member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation, who now works as a tribal liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite her meandering way into science and her subsequent challenges, Brenneman's love for science and helping others has carried her through. Connecting with other people and other cultures, she suggests, is a very good problem-solving strategy: "We can share our best practices."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofrancisco@nasw.org.