I was born in 1962 in Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is a very multi-cultural community, and has a large mix of Hispanics, Native Americans, and Anglos. I am a mix myself; my mother is Navajo and my father is Caucasian.
During the time I was raised, Kingman was such a little town that there were not a lot of career opportunities for women, and girls didn’t see examples of women who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. Many girls, including myself, struggled with this lack of role models. However, I received a tremendous amount of encouragement from my parents who were both teachers. They showed me that an education could take me far.
Growing up in Kingman had its advantages too. In a smaller community you can really excel, even if you aren’t the smartest person in the whole world. I was a good athlete and I was the valedictorian of my high school class. The confidence I gained in my hometown gave me courage through my entire education.
After high school I went to Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona where I played basketball. It was at Yavapai where I first fell in love with chemistry. I had always loved math and had decided to study engineering. While taking my standard science requirements, I took my first chemistry class. I had an incredibly enthusiastic chemistry professor that really made the lectures and labs come alive. Even though I loved chemistry, the class was still very hard for me. I actually went to my professor to tell him I needed to switch classes to take something easier. He said, “Oh no you don’t!” He was able to show me how to take a step back and ask for help, instead of saying, “I quit!”
As I continued with my education, however, I learned there are times when you truly have to give some things up. For example, when I went to New Mexico State University to get my B.S. in chemistry, I thought I would continue playing basketball. I quickly saw that basketball, on top of my classes and labs, was going to be impossible. Quitting basketball was a hard decision to make, but it was an important step in preparing for graduate school, where science had to be my entire focus.
Although I stopped playing competitively, basketball was still a part of my life, and in fact, taught me a lot about being a chemist. All of the discipline, determination, and patience that it takes to learn a sport are the same things it takes to succeed in science. The bottom line is that it takes hard work and focused time to improve. Neither science nor basketball is something that you can do haphazardly and succeed.
That determination was necessary when I started graduate school in chemistry at the University of Arizona (U of A). Graduate school was truly a test of perseverance, not just because the material was challenging. As I advanced into higher-level math and science classes, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer women and people of color. I got used to saying to my lab partners, “You know, a woman can actually do the same things as you!”
While at U of A, I found myself struggling, like when I was a girl, to find a female role model. There was a woman chemistry professor that I greatly admired. However, while she was very brilliant and successful, it seemed like she was “married” to science. I realized that for me to be happy, I needed to have another life besides chemistry. I am now married and have three children. Times have changed. People realize that having a family doesn’t make you less productive. In fact, having a family helps me stay more focused at work because I know I can’t waste time!
After earning my Ph.D. in 1990, I spent twelve years as a research scientist at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), which is operated by the Department of Energy. I study surface chemistry, which is the chemistry right where air or liquid meets a solid. At INEEL, I studied how waste metals like uranium and plutonium that were used in weapons production interact with the environment, mostly at the surface. Our research tries to understand all of these interactions so that better clean-up strategies can be developed.
Currently I am a professor of chemistry at Northern Arizona University. Teaching provides me with a way of interacting with students who are just getting started in science. Hopefully I am able to show students that a Navajo woman can be a mother, athlete, and scientist. I try and give my students the same advice my chemistry teacher gave me a long time ago, “Don’t sell yourself short, test your limits and try the impossible!”