You might think bee pollination and political activism don’t go hand-in-hand, but you’d be wrong. Just ask Michael Purtell. The 21-year-old Twin Cities native is a senior at UMD, and like most people, his interest in bees was limited to news stories about bee health declining and people not knowing why. That changed last summer when he was invited by State Representative Rick Hansen (DFL, District 52A) to tour the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
“Unbeknownst to me, Representative Hansen is one of the loudest voices in the state house on environmental issues and is the lead voice in Minnesota for pollinator health,” says Purtell. “After touring the world-renowned facility at the St. Paul campus, I really learned a lot about the issue and how important it is to our everyday life.”
At the heart of the problem with bees, says Purtell, are two issues: environmental and manmade. The environmental being a tiny parasite that infests beehives and contributes to what is called Colony Collapse Disorder, which contributes to the destruction of bee populations around the world. The manmade factors consist of destroying habitats for bees in urban and rural environments and the widespread use of pesticides, in particular Neonicotinoid, which weakens bees’ immune system.
Purtell’s newfound interest and concern caused him to help advocate to make his city, Mendota Heights, a “Pollinator Friendly” city, one of 15 cities in Minnesota, including Duluth. It wasn’t a path Purtell had planned on taking, but he saw it as an issue that needed attention.
“I’ve learned that bees are more than just stingers and annoying buzzing things, they are responsible for pollinating a third of our food and two-thirds of all crop species consumed by humans around the globe,” Purtell says. “Bees are different than wasps, and are an extremely misunderstood species that we rely on for pollinating our green world. And their worth in honey in our state is huge.”
Purtell notes that while he is all for environmental issues, like bee pollination, it’s not his niche. He’s an education major and is passionate to work on issues dealing with kids and education. “I’ve always enjoyed working with kids, but ever since the last couple years of high school, teaching has been my biggest passion,” he says. “I just thought of all the teachers I’ve had and how they were a major influence on me and how they strongly shaped the person I am today. I want to pass that kind of experience on to the next generation.”
When Purtell got to college he says he saw how the education system was affected by state politicians. He gradually became involved in politics, eventually being elected vice president of UMD’s Student Association. As your typical tech-savvy youngster, Purtell ran much of his campaigning through Skype. Currently, he is a fellow on the re-election campaign of Congressman Rick Nolan (DFL, MN-8).
“The Nolan campaign is one way into politics, and to help people with their life goals,” says Purtell. “Congressman Nolan is someone I can trust to go to congress and fight for what I think is important, most namely making education and higher education affordability a top priority. I am making connections and experiencing what a battleground campaign is like, while also seeing why it’s so important.”
When not sufficiently busy with his many passions, Purtell is also serving in the Minnesota National Guard. When suffering as a low-on-money freshman in college, Purtell enlisted in the Guard at the urging of his brother, who was in it. He serves as a combat engineer with Company A, 334th Brigade Engineer Battalion, and just recently returned from a mission in the Mojave Desert. Like many of his other passions, the Guard is now an important part of his life.
State Representative Rick Hansen isn’t surprised by Purtell’s many pursuits. “Michael is a sharp student, a good leader, an effective lobbyist for the UMD Student Association, and an enthusiastic optimist who is able to pull people together,” says Hansen. “I expect him to be a governor or senator later on.”
Lisa Ann Erwin, Vice Chancellor for Student Life and Dean of Students at UMD, worked closely with Purtell and has been impressed his energy and commitment to make things better for his fellow students. “Michael is a great UMD Bulldog. He has demonstrated remarkable leadership in his role as vice president for External Affairs with the UMD Student Association,” says Erwin. “In that role, he is responsible for recruiting and organizing students for the UMDSA lobbying efforts. He is a joy to know and work with.”
Corbin Smyth, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Life at UMD agrees. He cites Purtell’s ability to communicate effectively not only with fellow students, but upper-level officials and staff. He admits that in his one-and-half years working with Purtell, the young student got him to become more interested in sustainability. “That’s who he is. Such a hard worker and so positive,” says Smyth. “He is an example of the next generation of leaders who will advocate and get things done.”
There are a lot of theme’s in young Purtell’s life: passion, advocacy, sustainability, policy, politics, military, education, and, yes, bees. For Purtell, they add up to what he thinks will pull him in life, public service.
“I think I was really meant for public service,” he says. “I received a lot of help from my public school teaching while growing up and I just want to able to give back what they gave me, and I am very excited to begin my career.”
He stops, then chuckles. “I just hope somebody hires me in a year.”
Written by Dave Boe for Duluth.com the Magazine