George Brusch IV did not take a typical path to finishing college — nor has he chosen a conventional area of study.
The 29-year-old, first-generation college student nearly became a drop-out. But after leaving school, he regrouped and then excelled in his studies in biology at Cal Poly, which focused on the research of lizards and snakes.
On Saturday, he is one of about 4,100 students graduating from Cal Poly.
After starting at Cal Poly in 2003 as a forestry major, and struggling mightily to maintain a 1.7 grade point average, Brusch left the university for six years between 2005 and 2011.
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But since returning to Cal Poly and switching majors, he posted a 3.9 GPA and thrived in a field of study that involves handling reptiles — including nearly 100 rattlesnakes, by his estimate.
He is continuing on to graduate school at Arizona State University where he’ll study immunology in rattlesnakes. He’s not yet sure exactly what his future career will bring in that field.
At Cal Poly, Brusch worked on a project at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc on how moving “nuisance” rattlesnakes from their home territory can sometimes cause them to experience distress and frenetic behavior.
Brusch used tracking devices and global information systems technology to analyze the movement patterns of rattlesnakes.
Another project that he worked on examined how rattlesnakes use sensory receptors for navigation, including tongue flicks.
“I have a deep respect for rattlesnakes,” Brusch said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize they don’t want to bite you. They just want to do their thing and eat rats, mice and squirrels.”
“That being said,” he added. “I wouldn’t want to keep them in my home, especially in an earthquake zone.”
Brusch arrived at Cal Poly in 2003 after growing up in a low-income home in Vista, Calif., near San Diego.
Though intelligent, neither of his parents attended college and didn’t know how to give him much guidance, Brusch said.
His father held various odd jobs, working a stretch in a machinist shop; his mother’s work included assisting an eye doctor.
As a child, Brusch liked camping and the outdoors and thought forestry would be the right fit at Cal Poly.
“I thought, ‘Great, I’ll get to be outside, and I’ll be a forest ranger,’” Brusch said. “But my classes were focused on forestry management and logging. I realized, ‘Whoa, this isn’t what I thought it would be.’”
By 2005, he’d left school and returned home to the San Diego area, where he spent six months trying to decide his next move.
He eventually decided he’d return to San Luis Obispo and find work in landscaping.
It was during that time that he found out an old college flame was returning to town from the Bay Area to visit mutual friends.
“I pretty much weaseled my way into that one,” he joked. “I definitely made it a point to be where she was going to be that weekend.”
Brusch and Kelly Andreson, also a Cal Poly grad, married in 2011.
Brusch’s wife encouraged him to return to Cal Poly to earn a degree, and he re-entered in 2011. But in order to re-enter, he had to convince the university that he’d perform better academically.
Within a quarter, he’d switched his major to biology after taking a required biology class that fall.
“I loved the course and told the professor, Dr. Edward Himelblau, ‘I wish I could study this all the time,’” Brusch said. “And that’s when a light went off for me.”
Brusch then heard about a research opportunity to work with rattlesnakes, which he thought could be fun. Cal Poly biology instructor Emily Taylor, who specializes in snakes, became a mentor to him.
Furthering his knowledge of reptiles, Brusch is working toward publishing a scientific paper on the potential effects of climate change on lizards in Costa Rica.
Brusch spent eight weeks last summer in the Costa Rican jungle examining how lizards react to increased temperature changes, showing global warming could be detrimental to their survival.
“In tropical climates, temperatures say fairly consistent, and that’s what the animals are used to,” Brusch said. “But predictions are that temperatures could increase between 1.5 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2080. And that could be very harmful to certain species.”
Now days away from the birth of their first child, a daughter, Brusch and his wife soon will embark on their next adventure — moving to in Arizona after more than a decade in San Luis Obispo.
A graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation will support three years of Brusch’s five-year doctoral program. Kelly Brusch, a university academic adviser, will leave her job to move with her husband.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “I’ve just always believed in him when people thought I was crazy. I’ve always seen something in him and knew he could do great things even we didn’t know what that would look like.”