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Svea Bruslind standing by the ocean with her camera

Presidential scholar and zoology major focuses on what many ignore

By Kimberly Felton

A Strawberry Princess who gets excited about roadkill. A valedictorian who doesn’t test well. A photographer who focuses on the unlovely. This is the stuff College of Science presidential scholars are made of.

This one, at least.

Svea Bruslind was valedictorian of her high school class in Lebanon, Ore. However – “I don’t test very well,” she says. Her first SAT score was not high enough to qualify for Oregon State University’s Presidential Scholarship – the university’s most prestigious award, providing up to $40,000 toward an undergraduate degree.

Bruslind gets anxious with standardized tests, but she needed a higher score. So she regrouped with her mom, considered her options, and decided to try again. Not just the SAT, but the ACT this time as well. And this time, both scores qualified her.

“After that I was in the ‘consideration’ pool,” she says, “and they rely on your answer to the insight questions. And I guess I answered them well enough.” Well enough to score the scholarship.

Loving the unlovely

Bruslind was born in her parents’ home in the unincorporated town of Lacomb, Ore., 30 miles east of Corvallis, surrounded by rolling countryside, creeks and wooded hills. Growing up on their small farm and taking care of the resident animals convinced Bruslind she never would be a veterinarian. “Unfortunately I do not want to be a vet,” she says. “I have had enough vet experience, after living on a farm my entire life, and I decided that it was not for me.”

But roadkill – that was something else entirely.

Circling turkey vultures were Bruslind’s cue to grab her Nikon D40 and follow. Though her arrival might briefly interrupt the buzzard’s meal, they were much more interested in their food than in their paparazzi.

“I enjoy the less beautiful creatures,” says Bruslind, a first year major in zoology. “I thought [the vultures] were funny-looking, with their little bald heads. I think they’re fascinating. A lot of people are scared by them, but I figure I’m not dead yet, so they’re not going to mess with me.”

It’s her love for the unlovely that leads Bruslind away from the norm. Worms, turkey vultures, roadkill. Spiders and snakes. “I think they’re really cool, and I definitely think their worth is undervalued,” she says. “A lot of people kind of write them off as creepy or ugly. But when you learn about the life cycle in biology, these creatures are an important part of the ecosystem.”

This interest in the unseen-but-important is what led her into the field of zoology.

It all began with beauty

“I live in a beautiful place where I have access to the outdoors, and I really want to help conserve Oregon,” Bruslind says. “I’ve always been interested in animals, working outdoors, conservation.” She thought environmental science was the answer, and began looking at colleges with that major.

But a high school AP course in environmental science redirected her. “I discovered I was much more interested in the animal side of things than the environmental side,” she says. “Zoology covers animal behavior, but also covers how animals interact with their environment and how they interact with people.”

OSU’s College of Science had the ideal program for Bruslind. “Zoology is in the department of integrated biology. You can go on to get a masters or a PhD in zoology at OSU, which is one reason I chose OSU. I [chose] a school that has options beyond a bachelor’s because I am interested in grad school.”

In addition to the Nancy & Greg Serrurier presidential scholarship, Bruslind received a College of Science scholarship. While Bruslind gives herself the latitude to switch majors – for example, she’s surprised by how much she’s enjoying general chemistry in her first year; is that a future direction? – she expects to remain a science major. Science, in some form, is what she loves.

“I am very interested in wildlife research, maybe wildlife biology,” Bruslind says. “I am more interested in rehabilitating wildlife or working with wild animals. I am, of course, open. Volunteering at the Oregon Zoo would be a great opportunity. At this point, I know that I want to work with wildlife and animals and conservation, definitely. Any time you work with wildlife, conservation comes into it. I have my interest nailed down, but I want to explore a little bit more before I get into specifics, because this is my first year.”

Seeing the unseen

Bruslind sees what others miss or ignore, and she wants to draw attention to them. This is how she ended up in zoology. But it began with photography.

As with many farm kids, Bruslind joined 4-H in elementary school, taking on livestock projects. Several years later she joined a second club that focused on static exhibits, and Bruslind took up sewing and cake decorating.

What stuck, though, was photography, merging beautifully with her well-established love of animals. One of the many photos she took of vultures won a blue ribbon at the state fair. “I found a lot of times, the less aesthetically pleasing ones did not do well, but I understood that photography is an aesthetic hobby,” she says.

Yet Bruslind, now with a minor in photography, continues to use her camera as a means to a different end. “I think of photography as an important way to highlight these creatures. A lot of times people ignore them and look the other way.”

What was that about being a princess?

Turns out that girls who like spiders can also like tiaras.

“[Being a princess] was one of the most wonderful and impactful things I’ve done,” Bruslind says. Not for the tiara, either, but because she was able to help the unseen be seen.

Lebanon, Ore., crowns five princesses for their Strawberry Festival every year. In 2019, Bruslind was one of five high school seniors crowned. The responsibilities include acting as ambassadors for Lebanon and for the festival while visiting schools, attending events, and speaking at clubs such as the Optimist Club and Rotary.

But what made her role so important to her was the opportunity to give attention those who were less visible: The little girl at Boys and Girls Club, who excitedly read to Bruslind the story she had written, and vowed that her next tale would be about a princess. And the young boy at the parade, ignored by the adults, who desperately wanted to show off his new Nintendo game. Bruslind sat down and learned all about it.

“When I was eventually pulled away, he ran up to his dad, and I heard him tell about how he met a real princess.”

First year finishes in quarantine

Though a portion of Bruslind’s first year has been completed at home in the midst of quarantine, she appreciates what she is learning now and looks forward to what’s ahead.

“I have been really enjoying OSU, even this term which is all kind of wonky because it’s online; I’m still really enjoying it,” she says. “I like my classes. Obviously this first year I took a lot of core classes, the less major-specific classes. I look at the projected classes I can take, and a lot of them I’m really excited about, like herpetology [the study of amphibians]. There’s one called monster biology, which sounds really interesting. I’m really excited for the years to come, and just enjoying what I have going on right now.”