I was born in Buffalo, New York, on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation. Growing up on a reservation, poverty was a part of the fabric of life. The reservation didn’t have running water until few years ago. The housing conditions were poor, and my family did not have much money for extras. There wasn’t a tremendous emphasis on education at home. Government policies at the turn of the century were geared towards assimilation, so most people on the reservations did not trust educated people or education. My mother hoped that I would graduate from high school. My parents were supportive, but they did not expect me to be an excellent student.
There is one very clear connection between my culture and my interest in science. I would say that on the reservation, there was a great deal of pride in being free, including free thinking. This way of thinking helps if you want to do scientific research. As a scientist, one thing you get to do is pursue a question that is of interest to you, even if it is not of interest to someone else. My mother was the one who helped me become interested in science and mathematics. She had scored 100% on the New York State test in geometry, and she always told me I could do the same. I never did get 100%, but I scored very high on this exam. Unfortunately, my mother never had the opportunity to attend college. When her friends were going off to college, she had to get a job as a domestic. In fact, she worked as a domestic in the high school she attended. She would have liked to be a teacher, but she did not have the money to get the training to become one.
I went to the University of Buffalo, which I thought was a long, long distance from home, but it was actually only thirty miles away. I lived in the dorm for my first two years of college, and my quality of life jumped tremendously. There was running water, and as far as food went, all you had to do was go to the cafeteria and there was as much food as you could possibly eat. It was really a step up, and it was interesting meeting people from other cultures who thought dorm life was awful.
Generally, my career as a college student was rough, and I was not a very good student. I had basically graduated from high school without studying very much at all. I didn’t have good study habits at home, so I didn’t adjust to university level work very well. My interests were mostly in football and spending time with friends, so my schoolwork suffered. I had started out as a chemistry major, but in my senior year I switched to biology, in part because I was getting A’s in biology. I decided that I wanted to continue my education beyond the four year degree. My ambition at that time was to be a high school science teacher and football coach.
When I started thinking about graduate school, I was told that I should get a master’s degree in science first, and pursue the master’s degree in education later. I was accepted to the University of Buffalo Graduate Program in Biology. That was the point at which I really became interested in being a scientist. After receiving my master’s degree, I went on to Case Western University in Ohio. I had a wonderful advisor and friend there, Howard Schniederman. He was a successful developmental biologist with a large and very well-known lab. The students and faculty in that lab were the most diverse research group I’d ever seen. There were men and women from many different ethnic backgrounds. Dr. Schniederman had assembled a group of people who were excited about research and excited about science. It was a great experience. The focus of my research was studying how cells were organized and how they develop structures in the body. I was interested in finding out how an organism develops from one cell to an organism with many different kinds of cells, using the fruit fly as a model. I started thinking, ”Why not go ahead and get a Ph.D. and teach at a university?”
After I received my Ph.D., I began teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I taught there until I started my present position as the director of the Minority Opportunities in Research Division at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland (right next to Washington DC). The goal of our division is to increase the number of minority students who go into research, and we have programs for students at all levels, including high school students. Throughout my education and career, I have seen the value of lifelong learning. The happiest people I know continue to actively learn despite their age. I have always wanted to understand more about how people learn and why some enjoy learning more than others do. If you are lucky your education does not end when you graduate from school, but continues throughout your whole life.