I remember the day I got called into my high school counselor’s office because she heard a rumor that I wasn’t planning on going to college. Both my parents had gone and my Dad even had his PhD, but I’d just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I wanted to explore and read books at my own pace. I had a lot of curiosity for things outside the classroom. My guidance counselor had other plans for me and persuaded me to apply to the University of Washington, where I started that fall.
Before long, I had dropped out of 11 classes because I didn’t see the point of going. As a kid who grew up on a farm in rural Washington state, I loved backpacking and dreamed of becoming a nature photographer. So it was a stroke of luck that I had a botany class that transformed what I had been looking at all around me. Botany class made sense to me because now I could begin to understand ecosystems, the names of plants and how they coexisted together.
This particular botany course was advanced, so everyone was talking over my head and I quickly realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. So I began to ask a lot of questions, which always made me stand out, but I was comfortable with it because I have always been a little different. My grandparents are from Mexico, but in a rural community, we were the only Chicano family. Visiting my mom’s family in San Jose, everyone spoke Spanish (whereas I didn’t) and I felt a strange isolation. And living in Washington state, I was called “wetback” and “beaner”. But all this made me unafraid to stand out, so I kept asking questions, which made professors want to work with me and they often became my mentors.
By switching to botany as my major, my grades went from terrible to really good. I took a class at the marine station where we did experiments changing water viscosity and monitoring how larvae were swimming. I had so much fun with these experiments that I asked if I could continue doing the work. The team at the marine station gave me full run of their lab, which is something that has continued to be a pattern in my life. When I make a pitch to explore something further, there have always been people who open the door, give me a chance and believe in me to do my own research.
For instance, I met a visiting professor from the Netherlands who asked me whether I wanted to do a PhD in his lab studying marine invertebrates. I hadn’t even thought about graduate school at that point, but I felt it was too good to pass up and I went to Europe.
Or when I attended a genomics conference to give a talk on snails and a guy from UC Berkeley approached me afterwards. We got to talking about snails and three hours later, he asked me whether I wanted to do a post-doc to map their genome. So I went off to UC Berkeley.
And now, I am a research fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, researching cephalopods like pygmy octopus and pygmy squid. What’s fascinating about studying cephalopods is that evolution has created two lineages. We know that humans used to have a simple nervous system and therefore we shared a common ancestor. Cephalopods elaborated on those structures, so we can examine the complexity of the brain as compared to vertebrates to see the basic principles of how they are made.
Much of our focus in the lab has been studying the effects of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) to create more social behaviors. Previous studies have shows that the same ion transporter exists in both octopus and squid, suggesting that our social behaviors come from an ancient circuit. Most scientists tend to think of octopi as anti-social, but when they are treated with MDMA, they begin to spend more time with others, making contact and searching out other octopus in their tanks. We often tell ourselves that humans are so complex that we can’t be understood, but our research suggests otherwise and allows us to get deeper insight from a scientific standpoint.
This year, we hired a talented scientist to work in our lab. She was an intern before, working full-time as a waitress, going to school full-time, doing her research and balancing family. It took her 7 years to graduate because of all she had to juggle. I saw her natural ability to work hard and problem solve. She didn’t have the best grades or the most prestigious resume, but she had a lot of potential that she just didn’t see yet, so we hired her.
I remembered how important it was for my unusual career path to have the doors opened and be given the chance to exceed expectations, and that is exactly what she has done. A visiting professor from NYU Abu Dhabi collaborated with us recently and was deeply impressed by her. Also, we recently ran a workshop on genetic tools in cephalopods, with participants from top labs around the world. She taught the core methods and by the end of the workshop, participants would walk right past me to ask her questions, seeking out her guidance. I can’t tell you how great that felt.
You don’t have to be a genius to be a great scientist or even be a career scientist to research and ask questions. My story isn’t that I am smarter than anyone else. People want someone in their lab who wants to be there and work hard. In some sense, when you fall outside the communities around you, you can either feel isolated or you can gather strength as an individual. And you find empowerment to follow what you think is exciting.
As a child, I was a collector. I roamed around our ranching community in New Mexico picking up rocks and thinking about how they formed earth. I collected insects in plastic baggies with my sister, putting them in the freezer to study how they survived winter. This endeavor drove my mother crazy. My father loved nature and took me and my four sisters out to watch all varieties of birds.
Mostly, I gathered knowledge, reading books about Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and other famous scientists to get a sense of who they were. There were no scientists in my immediate family, nor any scientists I knew who looked like me or shared my background. My parents valued hard work, my father was very analytical and my mother creative, but they weren’t given opportunities like higher education. We had no money for college and it was part of the culture to encourage young girls to grow up, get married and work with their husbands. I was aware at a very young age how badly the women in my community were struggling economically. They seemed stuck. I was determined that this would not be how my life turned out and that education was the key.
At the age of 18, I worked at an Air Force base and started college at the University of New Mexico (UNM) as an engineering major, but quickly realized it didn’t inspire me. A few biology courses reminded me of my love for living systems and I began working at a veterinary medicine clinic. I did well in my science courses and a professor named Dr. Trujillo invited me to join his lab and apply to graduate schools. Again, my family said I couldn’t leave the state because it would be too difficult financially. They did this out of love and to protect me, I knew, but I was steadily developing my independence and making my own choices.
I stayed at UNM and began graduate work, but about halfway through, I decided it was time to get out of New Mexico and get a postdoc out of state. My PhD mentor was the wonderful Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne (former SACNAS President and Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Biology) who reminded me to stick with it when I was overwhelmed and told me I had a nose for good questions within biology. I followed my mentor’s advice and I completed my PhD in Biology at UNM. At the end of my PhD program, I got pregnant with my daughter.
Despite my family’s insistence that I stay in the state so that she would grow up around family, I applied for– and was awarded– a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship for a highly competitive postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. The program was a perfect fit because they offered a fantastic preschool for employees. This helped me choose a prestigious program while caring for my family. In Seattle, I was surrounded by people at the top of their fields and I was pushed in my work to study suspended animation, hypometabolism, and oxygen deprivation.
My daughter’s father lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was important to me that she see him often. My mother also would not get on an airplane to visit me in Seattle, so once my postdoc was finished, I looked for a position near New Mexico or Fort Worth that would allow me to start my research lab, teach, and work with underrepresented minority students.
Taking the position at University of North Texas (UNT) has worked well. I have been able to build my research career here and teach a diverse student population. My daughter is thriving in college and my parents have begun to appreciate my decisions. When my students ask about balancing family and a STEM career, I tell them that if you love what you are doing, you prioritize, focus and make tough choices. For instance, I loved science and caring for my daughter, so that meant I went about a decade without seeing a movie! My daughter has sat in on my lectures when her school was closed and come to my lab when I didn’t have someone to watch her. My escape has always been running, so I would reconnect with nature in this way and have an occasional dinner with friends, but the truth is, when you’re raising a child independently and competing at the highest level of your field, you prioritize and make choices.
The important thing to remember with any challenge is that they are short-term. There is an end! Once I earned tenure and reached full professor at UNT, I had time to train and complete six half marathons, take on an administrative position that includes faculty mentoring and I continued to run my research lab. I am happily re-married and even found time to catch up on those movies I missed. I was also able to serve on the SACNAS Board of Directors, which was an amazing opportunity to to help lead the organization that has supported me throughout my education and career for the past 25 years—starting with my first poster presentation as an undergraduate student.
To those future scientists collecting rocks in their backyards and freezing specimens in your mother’s freezer, I say this: do not allow negative voices to dictate your path. Take in the advice you’re given decide what’s true for you, throw away the pieces that will deter you, and ultimately—realize that YOU are responsible for your own choices. YOU chart your own path.
Dr. Pamela Padilla is Vice President of Research and Innovation (interim), Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, and Professor of Biological Sciences at University of North Texas.
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.
Dolly Garza, PhD
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.
David R. Burgess, PhD
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.
Addendum: Elected Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science 2004 Elected Fellow of American Society for Cell Biology 2017
Updated April 3, 2018
Clifton Poodry, PhD
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.
Linda Burhansstipanov, PhD
The Creator has a path for all of us, but sometimes it’s hard to find and navigate that path. Mine was full of obstacles, twists, and turns. Growing up, it was impossible for me to imagine the beautiful and peaceful life I lead today.
As a child, I was trapped in a caustic household, enduring endless violence and hardship. My father hit me so much that I ceased to feel the pain. My mother lived in constant fear. My brother fell into hard drugs. I didn’t believe that a loving family was possible. I remember sleeping over at a friend’s house and hiding in their hallway closet, listening. I thought their good behavior and tranquil household must be an act they put on for visitors because it was so vastly different from my “normal” experience. But it wasn’t an act at all—I just lived in chaos.
As awful as my experience was, my father’s violence molded me into a strong and resilient woman. I knew that no situation would ever compare to what he put me through. My mother didn’t have an education and was too poor to leave my father. When I was in fourth grade, my mother told me, “If you stay in school, Linda, you won’t ever have to put up with living like this.” I was determined to forge a path to freedom, and I knew excelling in school and having a solid career would take me there.
After finishing high school, I went to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), to study health sciences—a subject that was not only interesting to me, but that would also allow me to do meaningful work in the world. At the time, I had never dreamed I would pursue higher education all the way to a PhD level. And I surely hadn’t dreamed I would be educating Indian communities across the country! The immediate struggles along my path were too great for me to imagine the future. But I know now that hardship was worth it.
CSULB had the lowest tuition in the area and was close to home, but I refused to live in my childhood house. During my undergraduate years, I had to work four jobs just to support myself. I did everything from working at Taco Bell to coaching gymnastics. None of them had decent salaries, but collectively they helped me get through.
During that time, my life path took an amazing twist: my mother finally left my father and remarried—to a man who was the opposite of all that my biological father embodied. My stepfather was a wonderful, warm, and loving presence in my life. He was kind and considerate, loved me unconditionally, and accepted me for who I was. He was an incredible role model who allowed me to trust and feel comfortable around men. I have him to thank for my successful marriage today. Losing my stepfather to cancer early on in my career helped guide my path to doing cancer research, education, and prevention in underserved communities—a path I was already well on my way to traveling.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I applied for a health sciences master’s program at the University of California, Los Angeles. I was getting very tired of student life, particularly because of all my side jobs, so I firmly set my mind on finishing graduate school as quickly as possible. I worked incessantly, finishing my master’s in one year and then continuing on to earn a doctorate in public health (DrPH), which I finished in 1974 after only two years.
While I was completing my MS, I was recruited to teach health sciences at CSULB and continued teaching there during and after my doctoral studies. Fifteen years later, I was a fully tenured professor and had taught everything on the health sciences curriculum. I had an amazing array of students there and a wonderful experience as a teacher—a career I might have continued if new opportunities hadn’t branched my path yet again.
While teaching, I was also working at an American Indian health clinic in Compton, one of the first urban American Indian clinics. We had young women coming in with cervical cancer but we didn’t know why they were getting sick. We received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to develop background surveys that would help us learn what might lead to cervical cancer in young women. The grant also provided support for developing a needs assessment for cervical cancer intervention. During this time, I was recruited by the NIH to create their Native American Cancer Research Program at the National Cancer Institute.
I retired from Long Beach and stayed at the NIH for two years as an IPA and then two years as a cancer expert. Working at NIH was a great experience for learning how the institutes work, but I spent most of my days doing research. I missed teaching and working with people. (And my partner was still back in the West.) I was recruited for and got a job in Denver working for the AMC Cancer Research Center. While it was a good job that allowed me to work with the Denver Indian Center, I began to realize how much I needed to start my own nonprofit.
After four years with AMC of dedicated work and grant writing, I founded the Native American Cancer Initiatives, Incorporated (a small for-profit business). Then in 1999, I started Native American Cancer Research Corporation (NACR), a nonprofit corporation. We work to reduce cancer incidence and to increase survival among Native Americans by supporting culturally competent cancer prevention, health screening, education, training, and research. Some days, I drive down to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to do cancer education workshops for the homeless. Other days I might travel to American Indian communities to educate people about cancer—what it is, how they can deal with it—with hopes of reducing the stigma about it. We also arrange culturally relevant genetic education workshops, called GENA® (Genetic Education of Native Americans) at reservations and academic conferences throughout the country, including the annual SACNAS National Conference. Other days I work from the home office where I am a phone queen, with literally eight hours straight of conference calls or webinars. Some of our projects accomplish simpler, but equally important, tasks like providing transportation from clients’ homes to their cancer treatment centers or providing them with education about cancer programs, support groups, and treatments that might be available to them. For others, our programs provide trained Native Patient Navigators to help patients and their families through the cancer experience. Our work with cancer survivors is among the most rewarding work I have ever done.
For a long time my husband and I worked out of our home in Pine, Colorado. As the nonprofit grew, we built an addition. We also rented a small office in Denver beginning in 2003. Half of our home is offices and conference rooms. Finally in 2007, NACR grew enough that I could hire a full-time executive director, Dr. Brenda Seals (Eastern Band Cherokee).
I love my life with my husband; I love my work with NACR and the challenges and adventures that each new day brings. While we’ve never had children, we’ve raised many students during the 18 years I worked at CSULB. We frequently had two to three students living with us at any given time, some from my teaching years, other whom I’ve met while traveling or at conferences. One student even stayed with us for eight years! I know what it’s like to struggle and face adversity, and we do what we can to help these young people and ease them along their personal and professional paths. No matter how great the challenge, it’s possible to rise above it and do important and meaningful work in this world. Native American communities in particular need young professionals who understand our communities. Their fresh innovative minds will help us find better and more culturally sensitive treatments and cures, which we so greatly need.
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.
Karen Magnus, PhD
If you had asked me twenty years ago about how being part Chippewa had influenced my life, I probably would have told you it hadn’t. But as I have had more contact with my tribe, the Fond du Lac Ojibwe , and read more about my family history, it seems like a lot of my world-view and attitude about women’s independence and intelligence is in fact a reflection of how the Chippewa culture operates.
My feeling that women are able to do anything also comes from my parents. I grew up during the 1950s and 60s when the idea that women were just around to get married and have kids was pretty common. However, from a young age, my parents treated me as though I was going to be a member of the workforce. They also helped foster my early interest in science by taking my brother, sister and me to junior scientist meetings and to visit museums and power plants.
When I was a kid, science and technology was definitely on the minds of the American people. America was in the middle of what was called the “Space Race,” which grew out of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). The race to develop rocketry and space flight helped cultivate a focus on science and technology that resonated throughout the country. In my school district, students with any talent for science were grouped together and we were particularly encouraged to pursue higher education in the sciences.
My early introduction to science and the subsequent encouragement by my teachers led me to attend the University of California, Davis where I majored in chemistry and biology. College was a big transition. In high school we received individual attention from teachers; in college there were just the “teeming masses!” I didn’t do as well in the classes where there were hundreds of other students and multiple-choice tests. But when I got to the smaller courses where I was able to interact with the other students and the professor, I did much better.
I entered college with the goal of becoming a physician. However, towards the end of my sophomore year, I realized that to obtain the necessary letters of recommendation to get into medical school, I needed to have more contact with my professors. I got a job in my advisor’s lab where I had the opportunity to work on my own experiment and I became hooked on research. I really liked the independence of lab work where I got to think of what to do and then do it!
While the transition from high school to college was challenging, my move to Baltimore, Maryland to attend Johns Hopkins University was even more difficult. I had never lived outside of California and found the culture of the east coast took a lot of getting used to. I decided to give it a chance and after six years I earned my Ph.D. in 1980.
It was in graduate school that I started working with x-ray crystallography which is a technique used to create three-dimensional models of proteins. X-rays are the same kind of radiation as visible light, but have a much higher energy. When sunlight hits a crystal and the light diffracts into rainbows; it is similar to when x-rays hit a sample that has been crystallized, they diffract into a pattern. This pattern is different depending on how the atoms are arranged around it. From this pattern you can work backwards to calculate the atomic structure of your sample.
In my current work as a research scientist at Duke University Marine Laboratory , I use x-ray crystallography to study proteins in the blood of horseshoe crabs. Instead of being red, like human blood, horseshoe crabs have blue blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in human blood that carries oxygen between the lungs and the tissues. Hemoglobin is made up of iron and is responsible for the red color of our blood. On the other hand, instead of hemoglobin, horseshoe crabs and other arthropods contain hemocyanin, which is made of copper. It is the presence of the copper, which makes the crab’s blood blue. By researching how oxygen is transported by hemocyanin, I am attempting to provide the basis for further understanding of oxygen transport in humans.
My scientific work has taught me lessons that I value in all areas of my life, specifically about independence. The ability to set goals and work independently is an important skill to have, especially if you don’t always like being told what to do! But, science has also taught me about flexibility, and the fact that you always have to be able to change your mind. For example, you may come up with a hypothesis, but your experiments may not show the results you expected. When this happens you have to be able to admit you were incorrect and move on! Most of all, my scientific work has shown me the importance of pursuing what you love.
Joan Esnayra, PhD
Growing up in a home filled with alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and mental illness, I can identify with the organisms called extremophiles that live in harsh environments like Antarctica or hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. I am truly a survivor of extreme conditions.I grew up in a small town near Olympia, Washington. Home was always a violent and unpredictable place, so school became my safe haven and I excelled in my studies. I participated in student government, wrote for the school newspaper, participated in the speech and debate club, and played all kinds of sports. I also had the unique opportunity of sailing around the world in a small boat, with my father. He was not a rich man, but he was creative. For three to five months a year, for seven years, we sailed to exotic ports around the world. At the end of each summer, we anchored the boat in a foreign harbor, flew home on military planes, and I returned to school. The following year, we picked up the boat and continued our journey around the world. Over the years, we sailed to Hawaii, Tahiti, American Samoa, Australia, Israel, Algeria and Gibraltar. Sailing the world inspired me to become an ocean scientist like Jacques Cousteau.
Even though I wanted to be a scientist, or possibly a medical doctor, I started at the University of Washington in Seattle and decided to major in Philosophy. I discovered Philosophy in the dark and dusty stacks of the library, where I started reading Plato and Socrates. When I began college I asked my professors how I could balance my love of philosophy with my passion for science. They recommended that I pursue my zest for philosophy while taking the minimum pre-medical school requirements. They said that once I started studying science at advanced levels, it would be hard to find time for anything else.
When I entered graduate school in biology at the University of California, San Diego I found out how right those professors had been. Graduate school was rigorous and demanding. It was also the first place I encountered discrimination for being a disabled Native American woman. Because of this discrimination, I began to doubt my abilities and myself. I felt insecure and unintelligent. Feelings of self-doubt were complicated by increasing feelings of depression, a dark and ever-present stranger that walked with me most of the time. Ironically, the many challenges of racism, sexual harassment, disability discrimination and mental illness (bipolar disorder), helped me to cultivate a sense of strength and self-worth.
Without knowing why, I kept finding myself in the role of victim. Bad things happened to me, but because of the trauma and abuse of my childhood, I was unable to defend myself. Over time, I learned to fight the discrimination I faced in graduate school. I learned to say proudly, “I am a disabled, Yaqui, two-spirit woman scientist. I am also a survivor.” I came to understand that I am strong and that I deserve to be treated with respect. I learned to take back the power that was taken from me at a very young age.
Part of regaining my power was in the diagnosis and treatment of my mental illness. I have a service dog named Wasabe, and he has facilitated much of my healing. In case you don’t know, a service dog is trained to help people with disabilities. There are physical disabilities like blindness and hearing loss, and psychiatric disabilities like depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder. Wasabe is able to sense when I need to take medication and he helps me when I feel depressed by being my constant and loving companion.
Through many years of education and personal healing, I earned my Ph.D. in Biology in 1999, nine years after I originally entered graduate school. In graduate school I studied genetics and my research was about how to create rules or policies for the development of new drugs. After graduate school, I started working as a program officer at the National Academies of Science (NAS) in Washington D.C. At NAS, I manage committees of scientists and scholars who advise the American government on matters of science and technology policy. I use my degree in philosophy as well, because I am interested in not only science, but also how we apply it to our lives, and the impact it has on our society and culture.
I am excited by the work that I do at NAS, and I know that it is working hard at school that got me here. My education has completely changed my life in a very positive way. It has broadened my world-view and allowed me to celebrate human diversity. It has taught me that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.