Montana State University

Fulbright enables Montana filmmaker to study Maori culture and New Zealand's wildlife

November 12, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Dawson Dunning, who hails from the small Montana town of Otter, has won some of academia's largest awards. The most recent, a Fulbright, will take the MSU graduate student in Science and Natural History Filmmaking to New Zealand to film species of lizards and seabirds. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Dawson Dunning hails from one of Montana's smallest towns, but his passion for film and wildlife conservation has resulted in him taking on some of the planet's largest biological problems.

Dunning, a graduate student in Montana State University's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program who grew up on a ranch outside Otter, will travel to Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand this winter on a Fulbright Fellowship. While there, he will study and film the tuatara, a species of reptile that has been on earth for 200 million years, and the sooty shearwater, a seabird that has the longest known migration of any animal on the planet.

It is the fourth Fulbright Fellowship for students enrolled in MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program. But, even more notable, it is the fourth prestigious fellowship or scholarship awarded to Dunning, who says he is a pretty typical Montana ranch kid -- although one who has now had opportunities to study and film wildlife around the world.

Dunning adds the Fulbright to a Jack Kent Cook Scholarship for students of exceptional promise. While an undergraduate at the University of Montana, the 2005 graduate in wildlife biology also won a Goldwater Scholarship for excellence in science and math as well as an Udall Scholarship for students interested in environmental careers. Both scholarships recognized Dunning's research into the genetics of the wild westslope cutthroat trout.

Dunning said he has no secret to winning some of the country's best scholarships other than to follow his passions and know himself well.

"Honestly, I think I just represent myself on their applications," Dunning said. "They get to know a person they have probably never thought about -- a ranch kid going into conservation biology and now the arts."

Where Dunning grew up is on a family ranch so remote that it took Dunning an hour each day to get to high school in Broadus. Dunning said his family is close and one of his most prized memories is getting to go fishing with his father during rare off-duty days from ranching. What the ranch lacked in population, it made up for in a surfeit of wildlife.

Dunning said he realized early that wildlife is one of the most important aspects of the western landscape.
"It is important to conserve western wildlife if we want to conserve the western way of life," Dunning said.

The valedictorian of a 34-member class at the Powder River County District High School, Dunning said he isn't sure of the roots of the intellectual curiosity that drove him to the heights of academic achievement other than "I get really passionate about anything I am doing," he said, using a word that Dunning repeats frequently in his conversation. "That tends to take me in all sorts of directions."

When it came time to go to college, Dunning was sure that the direction he wanted to go to was somewhere in Montana. His sister was already a student at UM (she's in law school there now). By his second semester there, he was working in a lab studying aquatic biology. Most of Dunning's undergraduate research centered on the genetic structure of cutthroat trout populations and their hybridization with introduced rainbow trout.

Dunning said he was committed to becoming a conservation biologist until a class trip to the Galapagos Islands resulted in someone shoving a video camera in his hands and "I sort of hogged the camera." Dunning said he realized shortly afterward that making films about wildlife might be as important as becoming a scientist. He applied for the Cooke Scholarship, which provides $50,000 a year for graduate school for up to six years. Winning the prestigious scholarship allowed Dunning to study for an MFA at MSU, which he said just happened to be the best program for him.

"(MSU's program) is one of only two (natural history filmmaking) programs in the world," Dunning said. He said that ironically, the other is in New Zealand, a country he's always wanted to visit because of its reputation for fly fishing.

"But now I'll get to go there anyway," Dunning said. "There weren't two better universities in the country for me (than MSU and UM)."

Dunning said his work at MSU has reaffirmed that he made the right decision to go into filmmaking, which he said allows him to combine his interest and training in science with the creative arts.

Since he's been at MSU he has worked on films about snow geese migration, a naturalist camp for visually impaired children, bighorn sheep as well as wildlife in Belize. It was making the film in Belize with Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, about the link between ancient Maya culture and wildlife, that Dunning began refining some of his thoughts about the link between wildlife and mankind. Those thoughts, which he continues to develop, resulted in his Fulbright application focusing on the study and conservation of animals important to Maori culture.

While in New Zealand, Dunning will be working with Kristina Ramstad, a tuatara expert whom he originally met while she earned her doctorate at UM. He also will be packing his fly-rod to try some of New Zealand's legendary trout streams. After 10 months, he will return to MSU to complete his thesis and pursue his professional career in filmmaking. That work will continue to take him around the world, but the ranch-boy-at heart suspects he'll always return home.

"Working on films about issues in Montana, that's what I am most passionate about," Dunning said.