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Carmen Nappo-min

Carmen Nappo, PhD

When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies with my uncle. During the 1950s, science fiction films became really popular. They had titles like Teenagers from Outer Space or When Worlds Collide. Even though these movies may have been far-fetched, they led to my first interest in science.
My uncle was not only my movie buddy. He also opened up the world to me. He taught me algebra, literature and philosophy, and he also showed me how to tap dance! He and my mother grew up in show business as part of a traveling vaudeville act. They were Oglala Sioux, and although my grandfather was not proud of his culture, the family earned their living performing in costume as an Indian act. He did not teach his children about the Sioux heritage. At that time, there was a tremendous amount of prejudice toward Native Americans, and my grandfather did not want his children to identify with a group that was so discriminated against.
My father, who emigrated with his family from Italy, was also a vaudeville musician and eventually became the musical conductor for the Holiday on Ice show. My mother ice-skated in the show. My brother and I often traveled with them when the show was on tour. But during the school year, we were enrolled in military or boarding schools. We lived in a lower-middle-class Italian neighborhood in Chicago. We spoke Italian, and my brother and I went to a Catholic school after my parents separated. My mother had a lot of grief because the community did not accept her. Even though she wasn’t raised Sioux, she looked Native American. We had further difficulties, since divorce was also not accepted in our primarily Catholic neighborhood. But I felt like I was a pretty normal kid.
My mother remarried when I was 13, and my stepfather moved us to Victorville, California, in 1958. I was taken from a city of five million people to a city of 5,000 people located in the Mojave Desert. That was a lonely time for me and I experienced a lot of culture shock. I spent most of my time reading and doing homework, since I was planning to go to college. When I was 17 or 18, I became inspired by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an original renaissance man. Like Cellini, I wanted to become an expert in different subjects. Going to college was not expected back then, because you didn’t need a degree to get a job. But I wanted to learn about literature and science, and get my Ph.D.
I decided to pursue a career in physics because I liked the subject in high school. I started at the University of California, Riverside, in 1959. I got married at age 23, and we had our first child, Cora, after I completed my degree in 1966. During this time, I worked for the university while my wife worked for the phone company. I paid my way through school without any financial assistance. After I finished my master’s at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1968, we were tired of being poor, so I took a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researching atmospheric diffusion. I studied how air quality in our country is affected by the dispersion of pollution from sources like smokestacks or cars.
Later in life, when my first daughter was old enough to go to college, I went back too! With a scholarship from NOAA, I commuted weekly to the Georgia Institute of Technology, and completed my Ph.D. in 1989. Besides being a personal goal, completing my education made it possible for me to become a professor.
I took the opportunity to take my research in a new direction, and learned about atmospheric gravity waves. I had always wondered why trees sometimes rustle at night, even when there shouldn’t be any wind. One theory is that these turbulent events are generated by atmospheric gravity waves. These waves are similar to the waves on the sea, except air is pushed up and down, instead of water. Atmospheric gravity waves can be created by thunderstorms, fast-moving cold fronts, or air moving over mountains. The turbulence generated by these waves can increase the spread of pollutants, and so it’s important to study how the waves are created. When I decided to research this field, there wasn’t much information out there. It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to write a book about it, so that’s what I did.
Maybe it was my fascination with the Italian Renaissance, or maybe it’s from growing up with multi-talented vaudeville performers, but I have always loved learning about new and different subjects. Now I am learning about my own history, since my Native American background wasn’t really recognized because “it didn’t belong” when I grew up. My grandfather took the name of DeSoto because he wanted to appear more Spanish than Native American. It was really sad, because the forces of society succeeded in destroying his interest in his own culture. But the reverse is true for me.
Since I was denied that part of my background, my interest in my heritage has been rekindled. I want to learn more about it, and help young Native Americans interested in science. One of my colleagues, a member of SACNAS, invited me to give a talk at a SACNAS conference. Science is such a common language. It is about thinking, learning, and using something that everyone has, no matter what your race, class or gender is: your mind.