I grew up on the Navajo Reservation in an area called the Four Corners region, where the borders of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado come to a single point. My home, which we did not own, was company housing; my dad worked for an oil company on the reservation. As a child, I had the unusual experience of getting on a bus every morning and traveling an hour and a half off the reservation to a town in the state of Utah, just to attend school. The predominantly Mormon school was the closest in the area, and a number of other Native Americans in the area were also bused in.
It was apparent that we were outsiders. The school even went as far as dividing the classroom, with almost all the Native American students on one side and the white students on the other. The school proclaimed that the class was broken up according to academic comprehension and that the Native American students happened to have more deficiencies. Regardless of the explanation, the division created a rift in the classroom, and I can recall people talking poorly of the Native American students, labeling us as less intelligent.
I was fortunate enough to have teachers who felt I could succeed on the “white side.” I recall some of my friends, who were not as fortunate, being taught things I was already familiar with. As a minority in class, I felt I had to do well, and I always saw it as a challenge to perform just as well as the white kids. Even when faced with this complicated and challenging environment, I was never discouraged from my interest in school.
My motivation to succeed in school came from my parents, namely my father, who at the dinner table would lecture my older sisters and me on the importance of a good education. It happened so frequently that I can remember thinking to myself, “Wow! Here we go again!” Because we never owned a home and our small community (15 houses) was located in an isolated rural desert area, with very few opportunities for people to live well, my father viewed education as a ticket for his three children to get out of there.
My oldest sister was the first to go off to college and my other sister was next. Both inspired me to follow their lead because I always looked up to them. To ensure my chances of being well-prepared for college, I left home to attend a college preparatory high school called the Marine Military Academy in south Texas. Through an organization known as the Navajo Code Talkers, Marine veterans of World War II, I was given a scholarship to attend the academy. Although it was difficult to leave home, the experience was very rewarding. Not only did it teach me discipline, but it really showed me that college was the path I wanted to take.
After the military academy, I attended Colorado State University. Once there, I would think back to my childhood, living on the reservation, being bused to school, and dealing with racism in a predominately white town. It felt like I had made it, lived up to the expectations of my family. The best part: there were no dividing barriers! My college roommates were white and African American, and we would laugh because this arrangement was not common, but it was also not looked on as bad, either. Even though we were all racially different, we shared the same passion: to succeed in college.
My interest at the time was to become a veterinarian, which stemmed from my childhood, when my father and I would ride horses. I absolutely loved horses (and even did some rodeo!) and the thought of working with horses for a living seemed very gratifying. To become a veterinarian, I began taking the required science courses—one of which was microbiology. Working with that complex world, invisible to the naked eye, sparked my interest. I was able to see firsthand that science isn’t just fun to learn, but the results from scientific research can help people live longer and more enjoyable lives. So I decided to change paths and pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology at Colorado State University.
I now teach microbiology at Oklahoma State University, and I love my job. I work hard at my university so it can be a place without the barriers and limitations I experienced early in my education. Besides being a professor, I am the president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association. Our organization provides scholarships to Native American students on campus to ease some of the financial burden of college. We also organize events, sponsor motivational speakers, and fund other areas of the school in order to inspire students to succeed. Through this organization, I hope that we can knock down obstacles that get in the way of students reaching their goals.
Native Americans are truly underrepresented in biomedical science. Because I am one of the few Native American microbiologists out there, I think it is very important for young kids to have access to minority role models in the sciences, which will hopefully give them the needed encouragement to pursue science as a career. My vision and hope for the future is that someday, as more Native Americans enter the field of science and research, we can establish a research institution on the reservation. We would train future scientists and physicians of all races. A step of this magnitude could open a lot of possibilities for Native American youth, but first more barriers must fall.
I am now in a position to make a difference, and my father showed me that education was the ticket to get there. His wish for me was to surpass his own accomplishments, to be happy, and to make an impact in life. This was because he never had the educational opportunities that I was given. His memories of his job were of moving from place to place and working day, evening, and night shifts to make a living for his family. About six years ago, I happened to be driving with my wife and kids in the Four Corners region, the place where I grew up. I decided to show them where I used to live, but when we got there, nothing was left of the housing compound except a few structural fragments and familiar trees that I remembered playing around. It confirmed what my father had taught me: You have to build the strongest foundation possible if you want a house to last.
When I was a child my parents taught me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to. But when I arrived at the University of Oklahoma to be a professor of chemistry, I began to have my doubts. I was a young scientist, a mother, and the only woman and Native American in my department. It would have been helpful to have someone to teach me how to be a scientist and a mother at the same time, and how to survive being “the only one.”
Since there was no one in person I could talk to, I turned to history and learned about a woman named Madame Marie Curie. Madame Curie was the first women in France to receive a Ph.D. in science and the first woman to lecture at the prestigious Sorbonne University. Her work mostly focused on the uses of radiation in medicine. She won Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, and became the first person to receive this award twice. On top of all these accomplishments, Madame Curie was also a mother. She took her daughter Irene everywhere with her, including the lab. Irene grew up to be a scientist and was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.
Like Madame Curie, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my child, but needed to focus on my career as well. Since I was a new faculty member, I had lots of work to do in the evenings and weekends, so I decided to take my son with me to my office while I worked in the lab next door. He soon became very comfortable with the world of science, and he is now in college and majoring in chemical engineering.
The female graduate students in the chemistry department told me they were grateful for the example I provided. I showed them that it is possible to be a woman chemist and have a family too. While I was happy to provide some guidance for these students because I understood what it felt like to be isolated, I was still struggling to find a community of females, Native Americans, and other minorities in the sciences.
Before arriving at the University of Oklahoma, I never felt out of place. I grew up in Eufaula, Oklahoma, the capitol of the Creek Nation. I don’t think there was anyone in town that wasn’t at least some part Indian. In fact, I recall vividly in grade school that we all thought it was strange if someone didn’t have any Indian blood!
Early on I knew I enjoyed math and science. I had an ability to do things very logically and I always enjoyed difficult brain teasers and solving problems. In my school, boys and girls were equally encouraged. I was never made to feel that because I was a girl I couldn’t succeed in math or science. In fact, in my advanced math class, there were five girls and only one boy!
My decision to attend college was an easy one. My parents and teachers were excited for me, and after a little deliberation, I decided to major in chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. However, when you grow up in a community like mine, it is very strange to leave that environment and find out that you are suddenly in the minority. It was a huge shock for me those first few days college when suddenly I was the only Native American and almost only woman in all of my science classes.
At first I didn’t realize how different I felt. I thought maybe it was just because I was quiet or shy. Later on, I understood that the differences between my classmates and me were cultural. I particularly noticed these cultural differences when I became a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and then a professor. I saw that many people think they have to promote themselves constantly in order to further their careers. This kind of self-promotion was not part of my culture, and I wanted to rely on my performance in science and teaching to advance my career – not bragging. But in the culture of science, people can often assume if you are quiet that you have no accomplishments! Despite the pressure to conform, I remained true to myself and my cultural heritage. Through this experience I learned that I can only do what I feel comfortable with and hope that people will see my intelligence and good qualities through my actions not my words. I learned that the most important thing about pursuing my dreams is that I feel good about myself, do what I feel is right, and behave with dignity.
Even though I am still the only Native American and one of three women in my department, I have found that I am not the “only one” in the world of science. I am working on creating a network of minority scientists across the country, encouraging universities to hire more scientists of color, and educating minority students on how to choose a school that will best support them. It is my goal that future minority women scientists will not have to turn to history books to find a role model – instead they will find role models all around them.
There is a saying among my father’s people, the Tlingit, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” The Haida (my mother’s people) and the Tlingit are the Native peoples of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia and for millennia have thrived on the bounty of the land and sea.
We are a canoe people—fisherman, hunters, and gatherers of marine resources—and our lives are inextricably tied to the Earth. The Haida language reflects this deep connection to the natural world and celebrates the beauty that surrounds us. For example, the names of the months in the Haida calendar inform us of the activity happening in our ecosystem throughout the year. Kong koaans (June/July) means “Great month” because the weather becomes warm and the food becomes plentiful. K’algyaa kongaas is “ice month,” when the first ice appears on the rainwater in the canoes; and Wiid gyaas (April) means “Salmonberry bird month” when the song of the salmonberry birds announces that winter is over.
While the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native Alaskans are still intricately tied to the land, we are not the only ones to reap the bounty. Although commercial fishing is rated as one of the most hazardous occupations in America, fishing in Alaska is a billion dollar industry and is made up of both large commercial fishing operations and individual fisherman. A percentage of these individual fishermen are Alaska Natives, but their voices are not always heard during the setting of state and federal fishing policies. I spent my career as an Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Agent (through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]) speaking on behalf of Alaska Natives to ensure that their needs and uses of marine resources were recognized and accounted for.
I never set out to get a Ph.D. in marine policy. In fact, I wasn’t planning on going to college at all—I wanted to get married right out of high school. When our families didn’t approve of the marriage, the wedding was called off and my fiancé moved away. Soon after, my sister applied for me to go to college at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The whole thing happened quickly. She sent the application on a Wednesday, my uncle—who was a professor there—took the application to the admissions office himself and I got accepted by Friday. I arrived on campus on Sunday, two days later. I had a sleeping bag, two suitcases, and my sewing machine. My sister registered me as a business major, but I quickly found that I didn’t like the field. I switched to home economics, but then the department closed down. At my uncle’s urging, I became a fisheries major.
As a fisheries major, I had a strong focus on biology and learned methods of sustainable approaches to the harvesting of fish and other marine resources. After I graduated, I wanted to do what every fisheries biologist does: sit up on a tower on a river and count the fish going by. But my uncles, many of whom were fisherman, encouraged me to get a master’s degree with a focus on management so that I could better represent their needs as Native Alaskans in the fishing industry. However, when I started my work as a Marine Advisory Agent after earning my master’s, I learned that neither my undergraduate nor master’s degree actually taught me how to truly support Native fisherman.
As a Marine Advisory Agent, the job was multi-faceted: one part community educator, one part policy advisor. As a community educator, I taught individual fisherman about running a business and marketing their catch. I also taught basic survival skills and marine safety to fisherman and the community at large. For the fisherman, I taught basic survival skills—what to do if your skiff goes down. For others in the community, I focused on outdoor survival skills and Native food gathering. In terms of policy work, I focused on advocating for Alaska Natives in the fishing industry, and on representing Natives and non-Natives who customarily use many marine resources. When natural resources are being allocated out, it is often the “subsistence” users who lose out, even though they live next to, and rely upon these many resources. Since everything about the fishing industry is regulated, it is vital that non-economic values—cultural and community—are recognized and accounted for in regulations and allocations.
To make sure that I was the most effective voice for my people, I earned a Ph.D. in marine policy from the University of Delaware. My doctorate taught me how to examine and understand political documents and figure out how to speak on behalf of my community in a policy arena. Earning my Ph.D. also gave me the essential credentials to make sure I was listened to. In the middle of a meeting, when someone is talking down to the Native fisherman and subsistence users, it helps when the chairman says, “Excuse me, we will have Dr. Garza speak next.” That definitely puts the whole Native group on a higher plane! I often spoke to issues and concerns that other Natives had, but were not comfortable voicing in a large public setting. Their knowledge of sustainability and concern for conservation matched any scientist.
As I became increasingly involved in making sure Native Alaskan’s needs were met in the setting of marine policy, I spent more and more time inside at meetings! Pretty soon, teaching about Native food gathering and outdoor survival skills felt like a breath of fresh air—literally! Although I grew up harvesting seaweed, as a child I didn’t realize that there was science involved. But to gather food on the beach, you are a botanist, a biologist, and a climatologist all in one because you have to be able to correctly identify the plants and animals you are collecting, you need to know how to read the tides, understand the seasons, and study the clouds to learn about the weather conditions. This “traditional ecological knowledge” is science that has been passed down through generations of Alaska Natives. In this part of my career, I used my traditional science along with the science I learned in the university to protect, and support my community. I still continued to learn from the many Native hunters and fishermen who have decades of experience of the local ecology and biology, as well as generational knowledge from their fathers and forefathers.
In addition to cultivating their scientific awareness of their environment, the ancient Haida and Tlingit also became advanced artists, storytellers, and craftspeople. In my retirement, I am learning more about the language and the arts of the Haida people. I do beading, basket weaving, and Raven’s Tail, a traditional weave using wool. I am gathering the cedar bark for my baskets and learning why Sgaana gyaas (July/August) is “Killer whale month,” when cedar bark is stripped from the trees it sounds like blowing killer whales.
My father was a major influence on my early life. He was a Western Cherokee from Oklahoma who grew up living off and on with his grandmother, a medicine woman. When he was in his early teens, being the oldest, he left home due to the Great Depression and ended up in New Mexico. My father was in World War II, and in many ways my family owes a great deal to that war. Not only was it a great equalizer for minorities, but it also provided the GI Bill, which enabled my father to go to college in New Mexico. He became a high school mathematics and science teacher and a coach. When I was young I went to grammar school with Mexican-Americans, Anglos and Native Americans. For entertainment we would go to rodeos or pow-wows, where my father occasionally danced. While not wealthy by any measure, we were not truly poor. When I was ten years old we moved from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Santa Rosa, California. It was distinctly different in California, and the American Indian and Southwestern cultural presence was replaced by a very traditional Anglo-American culture. My father became a principal of a junior high school serving Mexican-Americans, Native Americans and African-Americans, and because of his commitment, life experiences and ability to relate to others, he became an honored educator. His commitment to serve others left a lasting imprint on my life. I am proud to be an American Indian scientist and love to work with students and others interested in science.
I was not a great student, but my high school biology teacher, Mr. Rathman, really took an interest in me and made me feel like I could make it through. My performance in high school was okay, but not good enough to get me into the university. Since the university was too expensive anyway, I went to a community college instead. I first thought I wanted to become a dentist, so I took science courses as a freshman and sophomore. It was at Santa Rosa Junior College where I was mentored, again by a biology teacher. Mr. Nixon not only expected good work but also took a personal interest in students. I didn’t do too well in college until I transferred to a four-year college, California State Polytechnic College (Cal Poly). Again, a great teacher took me under his wing and I was able to blossom as a student. At this time, I decided I wanted to become a scientist because I loved the study of cells. I ended up getting a master’s degree under the direction of Dr. Ron Ritschard at Cal Poly who gave me great career advice and support. I then transferred to University of California, Davis for my Ph.D., and again had the fortune of being mentored by a great person, Dr. Robert Grey.
I work in a sub-area of cell biology that deals with how cells change shape or form. I am particularly interested in what goes on in the cell’s cytoskeleton, a structure much like our own skeleton, which is meant to support the cell and give it form. However, the cytoskeleton has another function. The fibers that make up the cytoskeleton are used to move the cell, change its shape and move material from one part of the cell to another. The cytoskeleton is intimately involved with cell division, which is called mitosis. There are many things happening during mitosis, such as the separation of the duplicated chromosomes and the pinching in of the cell membrane to separate the two daughter cells. Moving things around requires motors, and the cell has built-in molecular motors. When you think of a motor maybe you think of an engine in a car, the electric motor of an elevator lifting people up to the 9th floor, or the motors in a dam that are used to convert water energy into electrical energy. One of the functions of a motor is to convert energy into motion, which is exactly what a molecular motor does. Using the fibers, or tracks, of the cytoskeleton of a cell, molecular motors enable the cell to undergo mitosis. The motors perform many functions. Some move the chromosomes apart and others constrict the dividing cell, with a muscle-like constricting belt, into two new cells. Amazing. In my laboratory here in Boston, and also working at the Marine Biological Laboratory, I examine these molecular motors and try to figure out how exactly they accomplish their task during mitosis.
My life as a scientist has been truly exciting and has allowed me to meet many people, travel, and live in a variety of places. In addition, I have served on the faculty at Dartmouth College, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh, where I chaired the department, and at Boston College. In addition, I first joined SACNAS in 1979 and served as its President from 1998-2000. In all of my jobs I have tried to be involved in efforts to create opportunities for minorities in the sciences.
Elected Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science 2004
Elected Fellow of American Society for Cell Biology 2017
Updated April 3, 2018
Sometimes you realize that there are certain moments in your life that influence you in a profound way. For me, one of those moments came when I was in junior high, and I saw a picture of an Indian doing a Sun Dance. Although I am Southern Arapaho, I did not live a very traditional life as a child. But when I saw this picture, I knew that I would some day do a Sun Dance—and from then on, my Native American background became very important to me. The Sun Dance represents the cycle of birth and death, whether symbolic or real, and it represents both tradition and transition. Now, years (and many Sun Dances) later, my cultural heritage defines much of the scientific work that I do. There have been many transitions in my life, some of which have been very unexpected, but my cultural heritage has provided me with a strong personal foundation, despite all of the changes in my life.
One of the very first surprise transitions in my life was when I decided, after beginning college, that I did not want to become a minister, as everyone in my family had assumed I would. (I had been playing the role of counselor and mediator in my family for a long time.) I enrolled as a psychology major at the University of Kentucky, thinking that a minister needed to understand how people work and think. My family did not understand my decision to go to college or support me while I was doing it. After delving into academic studies, I realized that I was not going to be a minister; I was going to be a psychologist instead!
However, the area of psychology that I wanted to study changed. My master’s degree was in a field of psychology called radical behaviorism, which means that I studied how different types of punishment and reward change animals’ behavior. But while I was working on my thesis, I realized that I was very bored with my work. I decided that I was going to have to rethink once more what psychology meant to me. This time, I decided that I wanted to work with people, so I went into cognitive psychology and got my Ph.D. at Temple University in 1978.
Before I’d even finished my Ph.D., my life took yet another unexpected turn. Jobs for cognitive psychologists were hard to come by in the late seventies, and the only job I could find was doing research for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the University of Miami. Although I fundamentally disagreed with many aspects of the work, all my current research interests are a result of having taken that job.
After four years at the University of Miami, I worked in the prison system for another nine years. I became interested in substance abuse treatment and prevention because it occurred to me that 80–90% of the people I’d worked with in prisons were involved with drugs and alcohol. I knew from experience that prison did not help “cure” them of their addictions. Eventually, I left the prison system and went to work at Brown University, where I did research about substance abuse and prisons.
At Brown, I got to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before. I designed a Native American studies curriculum and taught subjects that I really care about. I also helped Native American students adjust to the university system and then later adjust to going home again. That transition is very difficult in college because you aren’t the same person when you go home as you were when you left. Sometimes this is especially hard for Native kids from reservations, who often feel that their communities don’t understand them anymore.
Now I am the senior study director at a corporation called Westat. I research substance abuse treatment programs in Native American communities. Substance abuse is a huge problem in many Native American communities because they tend to be poor and to have little hope that life will ever improve. I am strongly against the use of prisons to control substance abuse. I don’t think that it helps substance abusers or the communities they come from. I work to develop programs that will help entire communities heal and to prevent more people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
One of the most important aspects of helping Native communities overcome substance abuse problems is to help them realize that their cultures and ways of living may be different from other people’s, but they are just as valuable. When people realize that who they are and what they do is important, drugs and alcohol become much less appealing. Long ago, the Sun Dance introduced me to a new outlook on life—one that embraces change and impermanence. This foundation has given me the strength to help other Native people learn to value our heritage and contributions to the world so that we, as a community, can heal.
1945 – September 3, 2017
Read Dr. Craig Love’s Obituary
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.
Growing up in New Mexico, I was always interested in the stories about how the mountains and rivers surrounding me came to be. I remember being told the mountains outside Albuquerque were uplifted during a single huge earthquake and I questioned it immediately, wanting to know more. I also loved hiking in the mountains because I could get away from everything and be on my own.
Even though I was always good at science, I had a really tough time applying myself. My family was very poor; my mom struggled to keep enough food on the table for my brother and me. She chased jobs throughout northern New Mexico and we moved so much that I had changed schools seven times by the time I graduated high school.
To help my mom, I started washing dishes at a local Albuquerque restaurant when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 19, I was managing a fancy restaurant in town. I had guys twice my age working under me and I saw my future in their toil. I knew this wasn’t the life I wanted, but I didn’t know how to break free.
If I hadn’t met my wife, Kelly, I wouldn’t be a geologist today. She is four years older than me and had already graduated from the University of New Mexico (UNM) when we started dating. She pushed me to enroll and helped me apply to school. I got in despite my bad grades in high school and I had to take a lot of remedial classes in the first couple of years.
I enrolled with the intention of becoming a physicist since I was good at science. But the physics class was in the basement and it was terrible! We were indoors, working with equations and doing meaningless experiments. It felt so sterile, closed in, not what I wanted to do with my life.
In my third year, I was still trying to choose a major when I took a geology class by accident. I was immediately enthralled. Geology allowed me to combine my love of the outdoors and science. I saw these guys getting paid to go camping and I knew that was the job I wanted.
While I was studying at UNM, I had several significant mentors who paved my way to a successful academic career. Gary Smith, who taught my intro to geology class, arranged my first job that wasn’t in a restaurant or a car shop. I worked updating a database at the New Mexico Geology Museum and, while the job was tedious, it was my pathway out of the restaurant industry.
Through Gary I met Jeff Grambling, who hired me as a geology field assistant and taught me all about mapping complex geology. He was an amazing friend, mentor, and teacher. While I was working with him, he died from a brain tumor. He was only 40 years old, younger than I am now. I still feel the loss of him greatly.
When Jeff passed, Karl Karlstrom took over for him and he was also an important mentor. He gave me a strong foundation in structural geology that I still draw on today. In fact, I still use my notes from his classes as a basis for some of my lectures at Cornell today. Karl really pushed me to go to graduate school. For example, once he had me lead a field trip for a group of students visiting from Princeton University. I showed them the local geology and they were so impressed with my knowledge that they thought I was a postdoc. The Princeton professor who brought the students to New Mexico ended up becoming my PhD advisor. Later, Karl told me he knew it would work out that way.
When it came time to apply for graduate school, I was scared to leave my comfort zone of New Mexico. I had spent my whole life there and I loved the blue skies, green chili, the people, and the geology. Also, I was the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone go to a university and graduate school. I was terrified to move to New Jersey, but Karl really pushed me to go to the best university I could. If it weren’t for his advice, I would have stayed in New Mexico and I probably wouldn’t be a professor at Cornell.
Going to a place like Princeton was definitely intimidating, but I knew it was a great opportunity and I did my best to fit in. My PhD advisor, Lincoln Hollister, granted me amazing opportunities and treated me like a colleague instead of a student, which made all the difference for me. We co-authored some really high-impact papers together and he invited me into big multi-institutional projects. He also introduced me to the geology of British Columbia, which I’ve now studied for the last 15 years.
I am now an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, working in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences studying tectonics, structural geology, and igneous and metamorphic petrology. Simply put, I try to figure out how the earth loses heat. The earth is a heat machine, hot on the inside and cold on the outside. Ultimately, that’s why we’re able to live on it. Without plate tectonics, which help circulate the heat to the surface, the earth would cease to bear life.
To answer these big questions, I’m in the field a lot, which is one of the best parts of my job. I recently calculated that I’ve probably slept outside for two-and-a-half to three years of my professional life, which amounts to two or more months in the field every year.
While I love being in the field, it’s been really difficult being away from my family so much. I was gone when my son learned how to talk and I’m still sad I missed out on that. Also, a lot of the places I go are really remote. There are no cell phones, no Internet, no nothing. During my PhD studies, I’d get dropped off by a helicopter in the wilderness of British Columbia and be gone for weeks, never talking to my family. I’m very lucky that my wife, Kelly, puts up with it. When she met me, I never imagined I’d even go to college and she never imagined that she would marry a guy who’d be going to crazy places full of grizzly bears just to look at rocks.
So much of my life is defined by what I do as a geologist, yet I’ve actually spent more years working in restaurants because I started so young. It’s important to know that wherever you are during your teenage years does not have to define where you end up being. I had a rough and wild childhood living in bad neighborhoods and I didn’t do well in school. But all that didn’t mean I couldn’t go on to something better. Being a geologist wasn’t even on my radar; it really happened by accident. I always tell my students to do the best they can and don’t be afraid to do really scary things, like, for example, going to Princeton—something truly terrifying, but that in the end turned out really well!
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.
The best thing that ever happened to me was getting very sick in the 2nd grade. Because I had to stay home almost all year, my teacher told my mother to get me library books to read. My mom had never been to the library before, and had never seen a children’s book. Once she found the library, she chose a variety of adult books—particularly biographies. Using those books, I taught myself to read, and from that point I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the neighbor’s books, I read ingredient lists on food labels and chemical products at the local store, and I devoured anything they gave me at school to read, which unfortunately wasn’t much. To this day, I can breeze through a 500-page book in a sitting.
We lived in a diverse low-income neighborhood in Stockton, California. From the earliest age, I was surrounded by Filipinos, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, European immigrants, and other American Indians My father was Cherokee and my mother mixed Cherokee heritage, both born in Delaware County, Oklahoma, but relocated to the California Bay Area for work.
My world was small 60 years ago. Most people in my community were not aware of the broader world around us in terms of words and science. No one went to the doctor or dentist. We had a car and were one of the few families who would pack up and travel for two weeks every summer—seeing the West, sleeping in the car, and eating from the simple food supplies we carried. We’d stop for lunch at magnificent vistas or on the roadside, seeking the next vista.
The only outsiders who came into our little universe were teachers and for the most part, they just wanted us to sit, be quiet, and behave. Teachers seldom challenged us or even gave us assignments and tests. Eventually my high school stopped giving textbooks to students, as we were considered too irresponsible to take care of them. (However, even among kids I knew who were picked up periodically for theft, I never personally knew anyone who stole or destroyed a textbook.)
I was insatiably curious about the world around me, but no one in my orbit knew the answers to my questions. I remember asking in the 1st grade that if there is a word for mother and father like parents, why is there not a word for brother and sister? No one knew the word sibling. I wondered how fog materialized—all sorts of things—but nobody could tell me. My father found a used set of World Book Encyclopedia that I read many times cover to cover. I can still tell you the page that details the origin of the letter W.
I went to a big school with a lot of tensions and violence between groups of people. Many girls in my high school had babies, and the boys went to “juvey”—the juvenile justice system, the common start on a prison path. Few students were concerned about academics. In my biology class of 700 students, teachers introduced us to the concept of grading on a curve. In general this boosted the overall indicator of performance, but when they passed out the curve, one score was so high they had to take it out to keep all the other students from failing. That was my score, and that was when I discovered the actual field of Science.
In high school I dated a boy who told me about the SATs. I had never heard of the test, but I went with him to take it at the local community college. When they sent scores to my high school, the counselor called me in and told me that I could go to any college in the country. But I didn’t know any colleges—neither of my parents even went to high school. My father attended an Indian Mission school where they taught the value of learning but told him he wasn’t worth having any more years of education. My mother was suspicious of education. She felt that education takes children away from home and diminishes fully taking part in family and community roles—which is, in fact, somewhat true. I ended up going to San Joaquin Delta College to study nursing because it was the only school I knew about. At that time, I was too shy to ask where to get information.
The greatest gift my father gave me was a singular cultural adaptation: I was the oldest child in my family and as the oldest, it was expected that if you came of age and were not married, you would work and send money back home to help take care of the family. The money I earned in those years (along with some scholarships) went for my college education. However, the sense of wholeness and helping has stayed with me and my brothers all our lives.
By the time I finished at San Joaquin, I had begun to figure out higher education. I enrolled in California State University, Fresno, and completed a BS and MS in public health. My first daughter was born just after I finished, but I knew I still wanted to continue my education. I went to University of Texas, Austin, for a PhD in public health and had two more children along the way.
Having three young children while working on my dissertation was a challenge, and then five members of my family died in a 9-month period, including my father. The loss of my father affected me the most. I don’t cry easily, but I would sit at a cubicle in the library steeling myself to focus as tears ran uncontrollably down my face. As sorrowful as it was, I felt my father’s spirit with me, supporting me to go beyond the barriers that were set for him.
Since completing my PhD, I’ve held several amazing professional positions, largely emanating from the pursuit of curiosity, keeping an open mind, and exercising what I’ve learned about being bicultural. I’ve conducted research and written grants for medical schools; I was a founding faculty member of a multidisciplinary research center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health Science Center; I was a corporate executive for Honda of America—and for the last 10 years I’ve worked at Georgetown University, initiating new degree programs in international health, human science, and healthcare administration, as well as forming a center for health and education and a health law institute. During my sabbatical last year at Oxford I studied nonprofit governance, but I also made time to read and talk with brilliant scholars about philosophy, literature, history, and theology. I remain alert for the next challenge. I am the person I became in 2nd grade, taking in the world around me, reading everything I can get my hands on, and fueling the drive to pursue curiosity. Long ago, I let go of shyness and stories that embitter the soul.
It concerns me that few American Indians seek to study the hard sciences. If you look at the percentage of American Indians in the sciences, one might think that we are not predisposed to learn about chemistry, physics, or molecular biology. Yet, our heritage is rooted in empiricism! Indian traditions are deeply embedded in observation and objective testing. My father would take us to the mountains or the desert and make us sit and look. He didn’t always talk or explain. We had to be still, experience, and watch—then tell him what we saw over time. He asked questions in a Socratic manner that fostered thinking for ourselves and generating new questions. That is empiricism. Now is the time to reclaim this innate talent. As Native Indians, we share a heritage of keen observation, of not superimposing preconceived ideas.
Indian country has considerable experience with scientists—coming to our communities with an agenda that proves preconceived notions with self-serving intent. This is not the native way nor is it good science. The empirical fields have high standards to assess and interpret what we see, touch, feel, and smell, and to move cautiously to declare conclusions. That is why I think more Indians will make great scientists. We can capture the curiosity of youth and nurture the fundamental quantitative skills that are the tools of science. We have a long history honoring nature. It is time to bring these traditions into science and the common good; in doing so, we honor our ancestors.
Dr. Bette Jacobs is a Professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration and Distinguished Professor O’Neill Health Law Institute, Georgetown University & Fellow Campion Hall University of Oxford.
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!”