Jenelle Dunkelberger ’11
Geneticist, Topigs Norsvin, Burnsville, Minnesota
Jenelle Dunkelberger

A new breed

Jenelle came to Northwestern from a small town in Washington state not knowing anyone else on campus. She learned to depend on God and develop deep friendships. While very active in the biology department, she also made many other connections throughout campus. A tutor and Honors Program student, she sang in the A cappella Choir and played violin in the Chamber Orchestra. After Northwestern, Jenelle earned a Ph.D. in genetics at Iowa State University. Now with Topigs Norsvin, the world’s second-largest swine genetics company, she oversees all of the company’s research trials that are conducted within the U.S.

What are some of the strengths of Northwestern’s biology department?

The classes are challenging, which forces you to know the material inside and out. I felt well prepared for graduate school as a result. In fact, many of my Northwestern science courses were more difficult than my graduate school classes. That gave me confidence I could make it through. Another strength of Northwestern’s biology department is that the faculty come from diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. Since the class sizes are small, you’re able to develop relationships with faculty members and classmates. Also, I was encouraged by the fact that all the biology-health professions majors were so willing to work together and eager to help each other succeed. I’ve realized since then that doesn’t happen everywhere.

What did you most appreciate about Northwestern’s faculty?

They took an interest in each student and had a desire to help us succeed. They went out of their way to work with us outside of the classroom, explain things, and get to know us at a personal level.

In what ways did you grow in your faith at Northwestern?

I had to rely on God to help me through a drastic change in my life, being 2,000 miles away from home and, therefore, my family and friends. School was harder than it had ever been, and I struggled with whether I was pursuing the right major and the right career. I spent a lot of time pleading with God to help me find my place and my calling.

How did you discover your calling?

That’s one of Northwestern strengths—helping students find their calling, more than simply shaping them for a career. I found encouragement through my adviser, other faculty members, my friends and classmates, and of course, my family and my now-husband, Brent. A major turning point in my life was when I applied for a summer research position with a professor the summer before my junior year, thinking the experience would look good on my medical school applications. Through that experience I found I really enjoyed research and discovered a fascination for genetics. I continued working on the project for my Honors Program research and eventually pursued graduate studies in that area.

What are your main roles with Topigs Norsvin?

I’m responsible for conceiving ideas and the experimental design of research trials, implementing them, and then collecting and analyzing the data to help improve Topigs Norsvin’s breeding program. I’m involved in many projects, but my expertise is disease genetics—identifying genes and genomic regions associated with increased resistance or susceptibility to disease. Using this knowledge, we can breed animals that are naturally more resistant or robust to infectious disease stressors. Doing so will help to reduce antibiotic usage, increase animal welfare, and ultimately, lead to healthier and more sustainable pork production.

What do you enjoy about your work?

I really like the opportunity to travel to various places, meet new people (especially people from different cultures), and make connections with other researchers in the field. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to present research at various conferences throughout North America and abroad. Also, I enjoy the interaction I have with farmers. It’s fulfilling to see how what we’re doing is improving their livelihood. And our larger goal is certainly noble: We want to feed the world.