Popular Science names Ramona grad one of ‘The Brilliant Ten’
Editor’s Note: This is one in the Sentinel’s “Where Are They Now?” series about Ramona graduates — where they are and what they are doing.
By Karen Brainard
A 1996 Ramona High School graduate has been selected as one of the 10 brightest young scientists and engineers throughout the country by Popular Science magazine.
David Schmale III, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, is featured in the magazine’s October issue as one of “The Brilliant Ten.”
“It’s an exciting time,” said Schmale, who lives in Blacksburg, Va., not far from the university’s campus.
Schmale said he and his wife, Jessica (Jones) Schmale, also a 1996 RHS graduate, were sitting on the patio of an Italian restaurant, planning their annual trip to San Diego to visit family, when he received news that he had been selected.
“I knew that Virginia Tech had submitted my nomination,” he said, adding that hundreds of nominations are submitted before the publication creates a short list.
The honor recognizes Schmale’s achievements tracking airborne microorganisms with drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles can show how pathogens of plants, domestic animals and humans can be transported over long distances in the atmosphere.
“They can be used to help predict potential outbreaks of human and animal diseases, and even help farmers time their application of pesticides to thwart crop destruction,” Schmale said in a news release from Virginia Tech.
He and his team discovered that dangerous microorganisms are transported across cities, states and countries by surfing invisible atmospheric waves.
When his drones collected strains of a fungus that caused a devastating disease of wheat and produced
dangerous toxins that exceeded U.S. food safety thresholds, his work was published in the journal Aerobiologia.
“David is a tremendous innovator who is advancing our knowledge of food safety and biosecurity by using new research tools that examine previously uncharted regions,” stated Elizabeth Grabau, head of the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science.
Schmale will be continuing his research next year in France on a year-long sabbatical where he will explore how microorganisms can modulate weather — “not only create weather but predict weather,” he said.
He and Jessica and their two daughters, ages 5 and 2, will leave for Avignon around Christmas, he said.
Jessica, daughter of Jon and Jeanie Jones of Ramona and an advanced instructor for Virginia Tech’s Department of Mathematics, will work remotely on a mathematics project for the university.
Although the two graduated the same year from Ramona High and were acquaintances, they did not start dating until they were in graduate school thousands of miles apart — she at California State University San Marcos and he at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
As Schmale explained it, the long-distance romance came about when their families evacuated San Diego Country Estates during the 2003 Cedar Creek fire and found themselves at a church talking about their kids.
“I had a crush on my wife since third grade,” Schmale admitted.
Upon graduating from Ramona High as salutatorian, and with a music background, Schmale entered University of California Davis as a pre-med student.
But he didn’t enjoy pre-med. When he took a botany course and the professor talked about a strange group of people who called themselves plant pathologists, he looked into it and sought a job in the lab of Professor Thomas Gordon.
“I decided this would be the career for me,” Schmale said. “I wanted to be a plant doctor instead of a medical doctor.”
Schmale, who has been teaching at Virginia Tech for eight years, said his next exciting moment will be when he speaks at the Nov. 9 TEDxVirginaTech Lab, which draws “a very large audience.” The university describes the event as one that features people who think “beyond borders.” The title of Schmale’s talk is “Drone-ing for life in the atmosphere.”
Working in the academic field appears to run in the genes. Schmale’s father, David Schmale Sr. (married to Sandy Schmale), retired as a teacher from Olive Peirce Middle School, and his mother, Denise Truett (married to Don Truett), retired from Barnett Elementary School. Both couples live in Ramona.
Schmale’s sister, Rachel (Schmale) Friedman, a 2001 RHS grad, teaches psychology at North Park University in Chicago. She received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, and Ph.D. from Purdue University.
“I think sometimes people sell Ramona short academically,” said David Schmale Sr. “I think Ramona is a perfect place to raise kids.”
Readers with the name of a Ramona graduate for the “Where Are They Now?” series may email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 760-789-1350.
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