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LeManuel Bitsoi

LeManuel Bitsóí, EdD (Navajo)

Growing up in the Navajo Nation sparked my early interest in science. On Navajo land, when you look up at the sky at night, it feels like you can see the entire universe. When I was a kid, I used to wonder what was up there and what the stars were about. I was introduced to science by my mother, who is a rug weaver. I would watch her take different plants, sands and minerals to dye or brighten the yarn. When I helped her, I was actually watching the work of a chemist and ethno-botanist in addition to the work of an artist, though I didn’t know it at the time. I would also ask her questions about the stars and she would tell me some of the traditional Navajo stories about the heavens. It wasn’t until much later that I realized there were parallels between Western science and the Native worldview of what our place was on the planet and within the universe.
I grew up in a small community called Naschitti in New Mexico. My biological father passed away when I was very young and my mother raised me and my three older brothers and three older sisters on her own. Although she didn’t graduate from high school, her experiences with school made an impression on her. She realized the importance of education and she instilled the value of it in us early on. I remember her telling us to get up and get ready for school every morning before she left for work.
By the time I was in high school, I had a full-fledged interest in science. I attended several summer programs in engineering and other sciences. After high school, I attended New Mexico State University, where I majored in industrial engineering. I was on a great track until I got to differential equations and calculus. One day, after the semester was over, I realized I didn’t understand how relevant calculus was going to be in my life, especially in terms of serving my community on a daily basis. I talked with my advisor about my interests and he told me that I should pursue a career that would be personally fulfilling. That’s when I decided that I wanted to become an academic or financial aid advisor in student services and work specifically with Native American students.
I finished my undergraduate work in child development and family relations at the University of New Mexico and I began to work as a financial aid advisor. I knew I wanted to get a master’s degree to further my career and I only applied to one school—the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ferlin Clark, who is the president of Dine’ College, the Navajo Nation’s tribal college, had gone there and encouraged me to attend. At Harvard I earned my degree in administration, planning and social policy. When I graduated, I continued working in administration and financial aid at Dartmouth College. Eventually, I returned to Harvard University to work with the Native American Program. This spring, I completed my Ed.D. in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania.
Currently, I am the director of minority training in bioinformatics and genomics at Harvard University. My position allows me to combine my education in college administration with my appreciation for science and my desire to help minority students. In my position, I find resources at various institutions so that an undergraduate, post-baccalaureate or even a Ph.D. will have a fulfilling academic experience. Sometimes a minority student may be the only student of color in a lab. It’s important to be able to connect these minority students with each other in a department or university so they don’t feel so isolated. I also work with scientists to develop workshops to introduce genomics and bioinformatics to high school and undergraduate students.
For me, genomics and bioinformatics complement what my community has known about the world for centuries without erasing our knowledge. I have not allowed Western education to change my identity—my education only enhances who I am as a person. In fact, my education has led me to fully appreciate and understand even more the rich base of scientific knowledge in the Navajo community. I saw, through my mother’s work that we already have an idea of what science is about; it just has never been part of academia because all of our histories and traditions are passed down orally. In my work, I hope to bridge the Western and Navajo scientific traditions, since each complements the other. Other communities of color also have their own traditional bases of knowledge; it is just a matter of finding what the connection is to modern science and moving forward with this enhanced worldview.
I hope that I can serve as an example for other Native American students: You can be Native American and attend a school like Harvard. You can study sciences like genomics and bioinformatics without forgetting the traditions of your community. The balance between old and new, tradition and science, is one you must set for yourself.