According to Lakota belief, the start of each person’s existence begins among the millions of stars that stretch across the night sky to form the Milky Way. We journey through this trail of stars until we reach the southern end, where we are asked by Maya Owichapaha, the grandmother, to select our life story. We choose our story knowing there will be good times full of joy and love, and hard times when we will experience pain and loss. But it will all cumulate to create purpose in our lives. Birth marks the moment each one of us starts the process of learning why we are here.
I am here as both a Native and an environmental scientist. As a Native scientist, I use more than a millennia of environmental observations by my people to understand how the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—interact so that I can bring harmony to the environment. As an environmental scientist, I draw on a wide range of scientific disciplines to understand the environment and the many interactions that take place on a physical, chemical, and biological level.
I’m also a mentor who helps young people develop a connection between their culture and traditional science. I believe this connection is key for allowing young people to draw on a variety of different perspectives in order to create a sustainable world for all living things.
As a child, I never thought I would become a scientist or mentor. In fact, I never envisioned a life for myself outside that of my family’s ranch and farm in rural South Dakota. But staying at home was not to be part of my life story.
I’m Lakota and Euro-American. At an early age, I was adopted into a loving family that grew to consist of my mother, father, brother, sister, and me. While growing up, home was the sweetest place on earth. I adored all that I considered home–my family, the big open grassy spaces, and the vast sky high above.
It was outside of my rural life where I struggled, especially when I started attending a high school 25 miles from my home in a town called Chamberlain. I felt like everything about me was different from my peers—the way I wore my clothes and styled my hair, even the way I spoke. I didn’t have the social skills to cope and, as a result, became painfully shy.
I remember being stricken with panic the day my father asked me to pick up a college application from my guidance counselor. I didn’t understand why I needed one because my parents didn’t go to college, and I assumed I wouldn’t either. But I respected my father and did what I was told.
My body was tight with anxiety when I walked into the counselor’s office and asked for an application. Although I don’t remember the counselor’s name, I do remember what he told me: “Jacquelyn, you’re not college material.” I walked out empty-handed.
When I told my father what happened, he said, “You return to the counselor’s office and ask again for a college application.” The next day I got that application, but I wasn’t convinced that I was going to college. I was working in the field with my father when I asked him why I should go.
“Jacquelyn, you must get an education,” he said. “Not because it makes you smarter or better than anyone else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But it will give you credibility in a world different from this one. And then you can give back.”
With my father’s words in mind, I went to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. However, I didn’t know how I was going to give back until I started studying the growing rates of alcoholism affecting communities close to where I grew up. This concern guided much of my early academic and professional career as I sought to understand addiction from a psychological and physiological perspective.
I received an undergraduate degree in psychology and one in allied health science, and then a master’s degree in educational psychology and counseling. I was denied acceptance to the university’s doctoral program because of a lack of “real world” work experience. To get that experience, I took a job as a curriculum development and training specialist with the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, which works to improve health services for Indian people living in South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska.
In this position, I contributed to research that examined the prevalence rate of children born with alcohol-related developmental disabilities. Even though I was working with issues of alcoholism, I noticed that the healthier the environment, the healthier the people who were living in it.
The knowledge of balancing the needs of people with the needs of our natural environments is paramount in Tribal societies. I realized that for our Indian children to be happy and healthy, their education must be grounded in this knowledge. Their education must connect back to their environment and culture. We can’t expect our children to be stewards of the land and each other without an education that includes learning outside on the land that they will care for, alongside their community.
After working for a year and a half, I returned to the University of South Dakota to pursue a PhD in education and psychology. I was close to completion when I realized the program wasn’t for me. I really wanted to manifest my realization that science education must connect the environment and culture, so I went back to the University of South Dakota, where I earned a doctoral degree in environmental science and educational administration.
Today, I work as the director of the Indian Natural Resource Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP) at Humboldt State University in California. The program supports North American indigenous students pursuing higher education degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). My role includes academic and cultural counseling and mentoring INRSEP students as they integrate the working knowledge of Indian communities with Western science. Our purpose is to ensure a culturally strong Native scientific workforce to meet the challenges and opportunities of our nation’s future.
Every day, I help my students make connections between their cultural understanding of the environment and what they are learning in traditional science classes. I do this by sharing openly everything that I have learned about science and life. I want my students to dream big and succeed. I want them to become leaders so that all of humanity can benefit from their ability to draw upon the power of culture and science to understand our environment and keep it healthy. Through my students, I have found a way to give back, and I have found my life’s story.
Robyn Hannigan, PhD
When I was young, my father bought me a toy microscope. I used it all the time. I collected objects to observe and made up experiments. When we studied frogs in high school, I would turn in extra projects I did on tadpoles I had studied at home. But my science teachers weren’t impressed. I was usually bored in classes, and I even got a D in biology.
My mother, who was from the Narragansett nation of Rhode Island, had advice that helped through the boredom of school and the apathy of my teachers. She always told me, “There’s time and then there’s Indian time. Make sure you get done what needs to be done, and you do it well. But don’t let a clock dictate what you’re doing.”
From what she said, I eventually realized that it is okay to learn at my own pace and to remember there’s nothing I can’t do. I learned this for myself after a rough start in school. We moved around a lot when I was growing up, and lived in six towns in five states by the time I graduated high school. We were poor and had to move as my father got new industrial construction jobs. He emigrated from Ireland without a high school education, so he didn’t have many opportunities. My mother also had a limited education, but my parents both knew college would make a difference in my life. However, most of my friends just thought school was something you had to do until you finished. I am a first generation college student, but not necessarily because I wanted to be!
After high school, my parents said I should go to college and that they would help me find a job to pay for it, or I could live at home and go to work. In Baskin Ridge, New Jersey, where I lived, a high school education meant a job at the gas station or 7–11.
I chose college because I thought it was one big party—I didn’t know college also meant work. It was an awful surprise! I called my parents all the time begging them to let me please come home. But they told me if I wanted a better life I had to get through college; I had to at least try. I majored in premed biology because I thought I wanted to be a doctor since they make a lot of money. But you had to attend class to be a doctor, and I didn’t really want to do that.
I eventually graduated from the College of New Jersey with a 2.9 GPA. I was happy to be done, and I got a job at the health department. One of my duties was running the scientific instruments, and I came to really enjoy it. A coworker told me, Why don’t you go back to graduate school and do what you want to do? But first I had to figure out what that was.
Within the year, I applied to graduate programs in geology, remembering how I enjoyed finding dinosaur bones with my mom when I was little. Although I had low grades, my future advisor at the University of New York, Buffalo recognized my intent to learn. As I continued, eventually I found a match for my interests—geochemistry.
After getting my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester, I thought I had finally finished with school. I just wanted a regular teaching job. But my advisor insisted I apply for a postdoctoral scholarship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He explained that it would help me go farther in my career, knowing the experience would mean working with scientists in other disciplines. He was right, and now I can help students by connecting them with well-respected professionals in their fields.
Being able to make a difference is important to me. Here at Arkansas State University, I started the summer Research Internships in Science of the Environment (RISE) program, so undergraduate students can get hands-on research experience. Besides undergraduates, we also bring in underrepresented minority high school students from across the country. These are students like me, interested in science, who maybe were told either directly or between the lines that they weren’t good at anything and weren’t going anywhere. They really bring unique insights to the design of their projects, inspiring my own research.
Science cannot grow without diverse perspectives. But it took a long time for me to understand this and to trust my own capabilities. This couldn’t have happened without the help of mentors who saw my potential and gave me a leg up when I needed it. Thanks to them, I went beyond even my own expectations. Now part of my job is showing students how important their contributions are to science. When I started my geochemistry research laboratory, I asked them to come up with the name. They decided on “Water-Rock-Life” (WRL), which summed up our research and gave us a unique name. My favorite aspect of running a lab is working with students, introducing them to the excitement of discovery, to help them realize that they are very capable people who can do anything they really want to do.
Robin Kimmerer, PhD
Like many Native nations, the Potawatomi people were removed from their ancestral lands. Even after they were relocated in Oklahoma, the disruption of the relationship between people and their place continued, as children were sent away to boarding school. My grandfather and great uncle were taken from the Potawatomi reservation in Oklahoma and sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. My uncle ran away from the school and made it back to Oklahoma, but the rest of my family became permanently rooted on the east coast.
I was born in 1953 in Schenectady New York. Having both Potawatomi and Caucasian heritage, I grew up feeling like there were two worlds. I was familiar with the native world and mainstream society, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in either one of them. One place I truly felt comfortable was outdoors. Although my family was removed from the, tribal lands they instilled in me a deep respect and love for the land of the northeast, especially the Adirondack Mountains. I grew up with a lot of knowledge about plants and the woods, and a deep sense of being rooted to the earth.
It was this love of the land that made me know from a very young age that I wanted to work with plants, but I didn’t know that such a profession existed. As a little girl I believed I had to be a nurse or a teacher because I thought those were the only jobs a woman could have! But when I was in sixth grade, my parents bought me a book on swamps written by an ecologist. I thought, “Oh my gosh! There is a career where you get to stomp around in swamps? That is what I want to do!”
With the goal of becoming an ecologist firmly in place, I attended the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse (SUNY), where I majored in forest botany and minored in forest entomology. However, while I knew I wanted to be an ecologist, I had some negative stereotypes about scientists as hermits who never left their labs! I also thought it meant you had to be good at mathematics, which has been a life long struggle for me. The kind of science I wanted to do was outdoors, in communities.
My worst fears about laboratory science came true when, after college, I worked as a microbiologist for a pharmaceutical company. I found the work very isolating and repetitive, and it was this experience that propelled me into graduate school. I attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I earned my Ph.D. in Botany in 1983. After a few years of teaching at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, I became a professor at SUNY, the same college I attended as an undergraduate.
As a professor at the SUNY, I am working with members of the nearby Onondaga Nation (who are part of the Iroquois Confederacy) to restore communities of native plants, including black ash trees, sweetgrass and medicine plants on native lands. I know from personal experience how changes in landscape and place can affect families for generations. I have learned that sense of place is as vital to humans as it is to plants and animals. In scientific terms, you might think of this sense of place as a niche in the eco-system, or the way a community of plants and animals interact with their environment.
Although the Onondaga haven’t been dislocated from their traditional homelands like my Potawatomi family, they are losing parts of their eco-system that are essential to their history and culture. Sweetgrass and the black ash trees have long been used in Iroquois basketry. Due to changing environmental factors the numbers of black ash and sweet grass are greatly declining. This change in the natural landscape of the Onondaga Nation could potentially affect the way future generations experience their culture.
It is this work with the Onondaga and the restoration of native plants that has made me see my greatest obstacle turned out to be my greatest gift. The uneasy sense of being split between two worlds that I felt so often as a young woman has become the catalyst for working with the Native American and scientific communities. I realized that there was an immense amount of knowledge about the earth in both the scientific and indigenous communities, but neither side was communicating with each other. I saw that if you wanted to combine the strengths of both science and traditional ecological knowledge, you needed somebody who could cross that gulf. I think my work is to try and be a bridge of communication between these two worlds.
In my life I often felt out of place, but through my work and relationship to land I learned how to make a place for myself. In a sense, I found my own niche in the eco-system. It is my hope that through using both science and traditional knowledge in ecological restoration the contributions of Native American culture can be understood as a respected partner with science and people can learn to appreciate all forms of knowledge.
Ann Lopez, PhD
I was born into an interracial Mexican-American and Anglo-American working-class home in Southern California at a time when Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans were socially segregated. Sometimes I feel that it is a miracle that I am even here because my father lived on the “wrong side of the tracks,” and my mother came from an old wealthy family in Arkansas that, before the Civil War, used to have slaves!
In my family, the fact that my two sisters and I are biracial was painfully suppressed. So when I wasn’t allowed to wear braids because I might look too much like an Indian, or when I was singled out in class, or picked on by other children in my all-white school, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I grew up thinking there was something inherently wrong with me.
But in a confusing and often solitary childhood, science was always very stabilizing—a rock I could count on. I knew that no matter what, hydrogen would always have one proton and one electron. And although my parent’s silence around our biracial family was difficult, they were very open minded about how to raise a girl. During the 1950s, there were a lot of female stereotypes, and girls generally had to play inside and help with chores. Instead, my parents let me run wild in the hills around our home, where I would spend hours observing nature and wildlife.
I excelled in school and, after high school, assumed that I was college-bound. However, my high school counselor thought differently. Perhaps it was racial discrimination or because I was a girl, or a combination of both. But when I graduated from high school, after earning all As and Bs, the counselor told me, “You know, I think it would be good for you to go to beauty school at Pasadena City College.” When I told my father, he was so angry. He encouraged me to apply to University of California, Riverside, which is where I earned a B.A. in biology.
I went on to receive my master’s degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1969 and that same year started teaching biology at San José City College. Because I had such a successful career teaching at the community college level, I had never thought about going on to earn a Ph.D. until I read a series of articles about Mexican farm workers in the newspaper. The rage I felt at the inhumane treatment of farm workers and the degradation of the land they were working on propelled me into the newly formed environmental studies doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1994. I was 49 years old.
I decided on environmental studies because it gave me the chance to combine my love of science with my desire to help farm workers and farm land. In order to fully comprehend a problem, environmental studies examines the whole picture, including the social, economic, political, biological, and ecological aspects of the environment. So, to understand why Mexican farm workers were being treated poorly in the United States, I had to understand the social, biological, and ecological aspects of the entire agricultural system that they were part of, both in the United States and Mexico. My work in graduate school enabled me to channel my anger at the injustice that farm workers face into a productive way to work toward helping people and the environment. Studying the “whole picture” gave me the perspective I needed to understand the complicated intersections between countries, science, farming, racial discrimination, and human rights.
Using the tools of looking at the “whole picture” that I learned in graduate school would have drastically changed my childhood. But it was my adventures outside, my love of science, and the painful feelings of rejection and isolation in childhood that helped shape my desire to use science as a way to preserve the environment and work for social justice. My childhood experiences also taught me to never be afraid of speaking my mind or getting angry. For a woman of my generation, this is an unusual characteristic. My mother always used to say, “Think before you speak!” But that always felt unnatural. If I had kept all of my thoughts and emotions stuffed inside, I would probably be dead by now!
In my life, allowing myself to get angry and speaking my mind has empowered me to make progress in both my education and my career. Most importantly, however, it has given me a way to look at the “whole picture,” to see how all of our actions can make a difference in the world. I may have been 57 years old when I finished my Ph.D., but I learned that it is never too late to follow your passion or speak your mind.
Lee Anne Martinez, PhD
My name is Lee Anne Martinez. I was born and raised in Lake Arrowhead, California. My father is Mexican-American and my mother is Anglo. My father was a Spanish teacher in a small town school, but he had grown up as a migrant worker. During my childhood years, we visited the barrio often, but my father had decided to move to Lake Arrowhead. He wanted my five brothers and sisters and I to grow up in a more sheltered environment.I have often thought of the struggles he went through to make a living and support the family. Many times in my life I have faced challenges being among the first women doing what I am doing. I have been a life guard, a back country ranger and a firefighter, and when I was hired I was the only woman in the biology department where I am now. Because we lived in the mountains, I developed a great interest in nature. Even though our school was small and did not really emphasize high academic achievement, I always had time to walk in the woods and observe nature, which made me happy. My father also used to fix things around the house a lot, and I used to help him. Mechanics and experimentation were things that always interested me.
By the time I was in seventh grade, I was the top student in my science class. After high school I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, which was quite a culture shock considering the small town that I had come from. I lived by a lake for much of my upbringing, so at Santa Barbara I decided to major in aquatic biology. After I earned my bachelor’s degree, I went to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I earned a master’s degree in biological oceanography, and then on to Cornell University where I earned my Ph.D. in aquatic ecology.
I spend much of my time now at the University of Southern Colorado teaching classes, such as ecology, evolution and environmental conservation. I also do research in the area of aquatic ecology. I study insects that live in streams. If you go to any stream and look under rocks, you will find many insects who live there, and you can observe how they avoid predators and find food. Many of the ”flies” that are used in fly fishing are mimics of insects that start out at an immature stage, much like a caterpillar, living under water for the majority of their lives.
A science education can be used to do many exciting things. One summer during my undergraduate days I worked on a project doing research on acid rain in the Adirondack Mountains with Brookhaven National Laboratory. This was one of the earliest acid rain studies conducted in the US. It was hard work, but I really enjoyed doing field research, and I decided that I wanted to continue doing that as a career choice.
Soon I will be leaving for Africa to assist people there in designing composting toilets. Anyone who has ever used an outhouse knows that if they are not properly designed they can cause a great deal of sanitation problems for the people who live around them. There is an alternative to that which does not require the use of water. Outhouses are used mostly because there is not enough water in supply to use what we think of as a conventional toilet. We plan to introduce what is called ”appropriate technology” there. If you build a toilet that is similar to an outhouse, except that it has flow-through ventilation, you can actually use the toilet to compost the waste and make new soil which can be used for agriculture. In Sweden, they actually use this kind of toilet in their summer homes. In many places in the United States, such as in national forests, these types of toilets are used. It has always been my goal to use my scientific background to help other people. I feel that this is much more important than becoming a famous scientist.
Make sure you take a lot of mathematics while you are in school, even if you do not think you want to be a scientist. There are many other fields you may want to get into which require mathematics. Also, do not let anyone talk you out of your dreams. If there is something you really want to do, you must do it. Even if you have a setback, try to bounce back from that. Did you know that Barbara Streisand was told that she couldn’t sing because her voice was too nasal, and that Albert Einstein failed a high school mathematics class? If that happens to you, take the class over again and keep going!
Miguel Mora, PhD
It wasn’t easy trying to get an education in my small village in Mexico. The only school was an elementary school that went up to the sixth grade. My parents were poor farmers who had a large family to support and there was never enough money, not even for food. We often ate just tortillas and salt. My parents are Tarascan, which is the main Indian tribe of the state of Michoacan. We’ve traced our family name of “Mora” to our village of Totolán going back to shortly after Cortez’ conquest of Mexico in the 1530s. Although my mother passed away four years ago, my 85-year-old father still lives in the village as well as some of my siblings.
Neither of my parents finished elementary school because they had to work in the fields in order to help support their families. I too, helped my family work during my summers off from school, and it made me realize that I didn’t want to become a farmer. I knew that my parents weren’t to blame for our family being poor, yet I also knew that I wanted more for my life and theirs. I desperately wanted to help my family out financially while obtaining an education for myself.
In order to get more education after finishing elementary school, I accepted a scholarship to a seminary far away from my village. I received an excellent education as I studied English, Latin, Greek, history, psychology, philosophy, and of course, religion. However, my seminary education wasn’t accepted by the Mexican government, so I essentially had to start over when I transferred to a junior high school at the age of 15.
The closest junior high was about four miles away from Totolán. My parents were too poor to own a car and there were no buses, so I sometimes had to walk to school. By the time I was 17 I had finished the 9th grade, and I then decided to move to Mexico City to find a job to support my family. I worked in an electrical factory where we made small parts for radios and televisions. It was an extremely tedious and monotonous job, and it didn’t allow me the time to continue my education. After a year, I passed the high school entrance exam and found a part-time government job during the day to help support myself and my family while going to high school at night.
Nothing mattered more to me than finishing school, and between working, going to classes, and studying, I didn’t have much time for a social life. It was a dream for me to be able to get a university education, and I would have studied anything. Since I was good in math and engineering, I decided on becoming a biochemical engineering major at the Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. While working on my bachelor’s degree, I had two jobs that helped focus my career goals: I worked part-time as a biochemistry instructor at the University of Mexico and also worked outdoors with research scientists studying birds.
I found working outdoors very satisfying, and it reminded me of growing up in Totolán which, by the way, in Nahuatl means “land of the birds.” Through this work, I realized how much I loved watching, listening to, and working on ecological studies involving birds. I also preferred not being restricted to the indoor environment of a laboratory. After getting my undergraduate degree, I researched getting my master’s in ecology so that I could apply my knowledge of biochemistry and toxicology to my love of birds and the outdoors.
However, Mexican universities didn’t offer such a program, and I found I had to leave my native land in order to pursue my dream. I ended up attending the University of California, Davis on an international scholarship and eventually received both my master’s and Ph.D. in ecology.
I’m proud of the fact that through the years I’ve become internationally recognized in my field of wildlife toxicology. I’m also very proud of the fact that I’m the only one in my family who made it to college.
Despite my family’s poverty, it was my experiences in childhood that got me to where I am today. Helping my father in the fields gave me an appreciation and respect for nature, and the struggles I went through to obtain an education taught me the power of perseverance and hard work. In fact, if my family had money for me to go to school, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today.