When I was in graduate school at the University of Washington (UW), I studied organisms called bryozoans, which are often called “moss animals” because they are usually mistaken for seaweed and plants. Bryozoans thrive in both fresh and saltwater environments. One species even produces a chemical compound that is being used in cancer research. Bryozoans are actually made up of millions of tiny individuals called zooids that work together to create the organism. Each of the zooids has a specific function: defense, eating, reproduction, to name a few. Because they each do only one job, zooids cannot exist independently. I especially like the idea that bryozoans are absolutely connected to each other and that their survival is dependent on mutual work and support. Like bryozoans, I feel that I am made up of more than just myself. My parents and sisters are a profound part of who I am, and the love and support of my family has helped me get to where I am today.
Although neither of my parents completed college, they always emphasized the importance of education. My dad, who is Navajo, started college but soon got drafted into the Vietnam War. My mom is from a traditional Mexican family and she was never expected to go to college. One of her high school teachers noticed her potential, convinced her that she should go to college, and helped her get a scholarship. However, after my mom and dad got married and had me and my two younger sisters, finishing college became virtually impossible for her.
My parents took it upon themselves to get me into college. I was born in 1968 and grew up in Española, New Mexico, a town filled with Pueblo Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos. Even though Española is a diverse town, Native Americans were always treated a little differently. We weren’t expected to do as much because we were Indian, and as a result, many Indians in the area didn’t finish school. Without realizing it, I began to see myself the way others saw me. When my mother saw that I was probably going to stay home after high school, she encouraged me to attend Northern New Mexico Community College. My father was also instrumental in my education. He works at Los Alamos National Labs, which has a program that helps the children of employees to go to a University of California school. With my parent’s encouragement, I decided to pursue a life long interest in the sciences, and chose to study marine biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) where I graduated with a B.S. degree in 1992.
The transition from a community college to a four-year university was very challenging. Going from a school of 500 to a university of 10,000 students was quite a shock! When I first got to UCSC I began to doubt my abilities as a student. I would sit and listen to other students talk about the advanced classes they had taken in high school and experiences that they had with research and travel and I would think, “How am I going to get through this class?” It took me a while to realize that I was just as smart as they were. Furthermore, I had a lot of encounters with people who didn’t know what to make of a Native American scientist. When people found out that I was Navajo, they would romanticize what it was like to be Native American. Other experiences were more extreme. For example, some of the teaching assistants would even ask if I could understand English! While all of these situations were a shock to my system, they made me a stronger person in that I had to find my own identity outside all the stereotypes and preconceptions that people had of me.
My strong love of science, and the support of my family and my mentors (Dr. Clifton Poodry from UCSC, and Dr. Richard Strathmann, the associate director of Friday Harbor Labs, where I did my graduate research) kept me going through all of the difficult transitions, and helped me to attain a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington in 2001. Earning a Ph.D. has made me feel more confident and self-assured. Now I am able to use the skills I learned through school to set goals and reach them. I am currently at the Center for Insect Science at the University of Arizona where I am studying how insects become resistant to crops that have been genetically modified for pest control.
In the future I hope to teach at a university, continue with my research, and help students, particularly women and minorities like myself. As both my parents and mentors told me, you should be proud of your identity. When people try to put you down, remember that they don’t know anything about you. You know who you are and you are strong.