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Dr. Janelle (Kleinhesselink) Dunkelberger wasn’t much interested in animals while growing up in Whatcom County, but she came to enjoy the science of animal genetics. (Courtesy photo/Northwestern College)

Northwestern College is proud of grad Janelle Dunkelberger from Everson, NVHS

ORANGE CITY, Iowa — Northwestern College is nominating a 2011 alumna whose home was Everson for the 2019 Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Young Alumni Award.

Dr. Jenelle (nee Kleinhesselink) Dunkelberger, now of Lakeville, Minnesota, is a geneticist for the world’s second-largest swine genetics company. The daughter of Rev. Charles and Jean Kleinhesselink was a 2007 graduate of Nooksack Valley High School.

The award recognizes an individual who has achieved uncommon leadership or success in a way that reflects the values of Christian higher education, the college says in a press release. The winner will be chosen by a committee in December and be recognized at a CCCU conference in February. 

Felipe Silva, a 2012 Northwestern alumnus who founded and directs a climbing gym as a way to reach out to at-risk children and teens in an economically depressed region of Romania, won the award in 2017.

Dunkelberger’s path to becoming a Ph.D.-trained geneticist began rather inauspiciously. The biology-health professions major planned to become a medical doctor. She accepted a genetics-oriented summer research position with a Northwestern professor the summer before her junior year because she thought it would look good on her medical school applications.

“I wasn’t necessarily expecting to enjoy it, but I did. I found it very fascinating,” she said. Dunkelberger continued working on the project for her honors program research.

After graduation, she worked in a pathology lab for a year while she considered her future and some of the reservations she had about medical school. Late that summer of 2011, she decided to apply for the genetics Ph.D. program at Iowa State University for the subsequent year, willing to accept however God would lead, Northwestern reports. Not long after, she was offered a USDA fellowship to begin the program in two weeks. She felt God had spoken to her.

The focus of much of Dunkelberger’s research and study at Iowa State was the genetic improvement of livestock for enhanced disease resistance. She collaborated on several scholarly papers and presentations, won the 2016 National Swine Improvement Federation’s Lauren Christian Graduate Student Award, and placed third in the American Society of Animal Science’s Ph.D. oral competition that year.

Dunkelberger spent two months of 2016 in the Netherlands, working as a research intern for Topigs Norsvin, the second-largest swine genetics company in the world. She was hired by the firm upon completing her doctorate in 2017 and currently oversees all of Topigs Norsvin’s research trials that are conducted within the U.S. out of its national headquarters in Burnsville, Minnesota.

Dunkelberger’s role includes conceiving ideas and experimental designs for research trials, implementing them, and then collecting and analyzing the data to help improve Topigs Norsvin’s breeding program.

“We want to identify the genes and genomic regions associated with increased disease resistance,” she said. “This will help us to facilitate selection decisions in order to 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.”

Janelle’s upbringing puts an interesting twist on what she does now. “She had no interest in any of this,” says her mom, Jean, and so was not in FFA or 4-H as a kid. However, dad Chuck has a hobby farming sideline of breeding sows to supply pigs for the Lynden Christian and Nooksack Valley FFA programs, Jean relates.

Dunkelberger says that she enjoys the interaction with farmers that her job provides.

“It’s fulfilling getting to interact with the farmers and to see how what we’re doing is improving their livelihood. For many of the farmers that we work with, their farms have been in their families for generations. It’s a joy to be able to help them succeed. And our larger goal is certainly noble: We want to feed the world.”

Dunkelberger frequently gives research presentations, including at international meetings such as the Gordon Research Conference on Quantitative Genetics and Genomics in Italy and the International Conference on Production Diseases in Farm Animals in the Netherlands. She has had numerous articles published, including in the Journal of Animal Science, BMC Genomics and Livestock Science.

This is all no surprise to Dr. Sara Sybesma Tolsma, the Northwestern biology professor who worked with Dunkelberger on her first foray into genetics in 2009.

“She was bright, thoughtful, creative, precise and enthusiastic, and she worked well with the other team members,” Tolsma said. “It was easy to for me to see her potential as a scientist because she both knew what she was doing and she had good ‘lab hands.’ When she did experiments, they worked.”