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.
As the youngest of ten children of a traditional Mexican couple, I learned to adapt to change and be creative. Growing up in the Sierra Tarahumara, I spent time during the cold winters reading all kinds of books. My favorites were encyclopedias. I remember the first time I thought about chemistry, I was looking at a diagram of an animal cell on one page and a vegetable cell on the other. I could understand that each cell had unique structures – mitochondria and ribosomes – but I asked my mom, “Yes, but how does this make life happen?” Although neither she nor my father finished a formal education, they instilled in me the power that comes with knowledge. This curiosity became the foundation of my love for science.
We moved to Texas when I finished high school so my family could reunite and my mom could receive treatment for her heart condition. As the youngest, I felt a responsibility to stay with her in El Paso. I began to learn English at a community college and was told by my advisor that I should just get an associate’s degree, maybe become a technician. I was disappointed. My ambitions were so much higher than that, and I knew I could do better. A fire sparked in me and I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to major in chemistry.
My years at UTEP fueled my love of science. There was only one woman in the entire faculty, and many professors were older white men, which made it intimidating to approach them about research opportunities. I found great mentors who invited me to be a peer leader with a group that traveled to area elementary and high schools to conduct demonstrations with explosions and science games. When I met a Latino professor in environmental chemistry, I discovered he was from Chihuahua, where I had grown up. His lab became my second home.
Balancing my science with caring for my mom was a challenge for me, but as the youngest in my family, I felt a strong obligation to be there for her. There were many long days in the lab and then I would return home to a list of chores, but I did them with love. The opportunities my mom created for me and her belief in our education gave me the fire I needed to keep going.
A new professor told us in an organic chemistry class about SACNAS and said he wanted to take students to the conference. I presented my research as a poster and oral presentation, won an award, and met the director of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center (CNRC). He was impressed with my work exploring how plants convert toxic metals into non-toxic species. I later joined his group as a summer intern at the CNRC in Houston. What a phenomenal experience! I learned about genetics and plant chemistry.
There were times when pursuing a degree in a male-dominated industry was overwhelming. I was often told I couldn’t succeed, that my research was not “real chemistry” because I worked with plants, or people did not expect me to continue my education. But as I approached the end of my PhD, I met a guru of electron microscopy, Dr. Miguel José-Yacamån, at a SACNAS conference. He was delighted to meet a female Latina scientist with a background in analytical chemistry and microscopy. I began working in his lab and realized that the impact I wanted to have with my science was to teach, and looking back at my experiences, I knew I could make a difference.
I became an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas Permian Basin, where I have mentored 22 students. I’ve supported students in completing their degrees in chemistry and in exploring new pathways. I do my best to advance my students’ science. I write them letters of recommendation, tell them about internships, take them on tours to industry, and we go to SACNAS conferences and ACS meetings. Anything to open their eyes to the wonders of chemistry.
I am nearing the end of my tenure track and recently the Physical Science Department faculty elected me to be chair of the department. I will be the only woman in the department and the chair of the department. I am proving that women can have positions like these.
We all know our science is important, but we should always be open to new opportunities and adventures while also taking care of our people and ourselves. I think back to the little girl I was, voraciously reading those encyclopedias, hungry for knowledge, and a quote from Dr. Vincent Tinto comes to mind, “Access without support is not opportunity.” If I didn’t have mentors around to point me toward the opportunities I had, I might have missed them. We must support the next generation of scientists.
There are two things that have defined me through my entire life; never being afraid to try something new and being an optimist. Much of that fearlessness comes from my upbringing. My father brought us to the U.S. from Cuba, where he had been a political prisoner. We moved to New Jersey, learned to speak English and eventually were granted political asylum, putting me on the path to citizenship. This was a gift that I do not take for granted, because in our current times those privileges are being challenged.
Senior year in college I earned the American Chemical Society Student Award. At the award ceremony I heard the famous medicinal chemist Leo Sternbach talk about his discovery of benzodiazepines, a class of medicines that transformed the lives of people suffering from anxiety and depression. At that moment I knew I wanted to earn a PhD and be a medicinal chemist.
For my PhD thesis project at SUNY Stony Brook I used organic synthesis, computational chemistry and crystallography in equal parts. I continued my work as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Scripps Research Institute. Up until that point I had the naïve notion that exciting science only took place in academia, but at Scripps I was exposed to the biotech and pharmaceutical world, where the medicines being created could help people in a shorter time frame. I wanted my work to have that impact and I realized that the techniques I had honed over the years were the perfect foundation of structure-based drug design, a field that uses knowledge of 3D protein structures to create drugs that specifically target a given disease, with the goal of minimizing side effects.
My first job was as employee number one at Kinetix Pharmaceuticals, a company founded by Dr. Nick Lydon who pioneered the development of a new type of anti-cancer drugs targeting a class of proteins called kinases, whose function can go awry and drive cancer growth. At Kinetix we applied structure-based drug design and wrote some of the earliest articles on the design of kinase inhibitors. There are now over 30 approved kinase inhibitor drugs today that treat a variety of cancers and other conditions.
In 2005, I joined CHDI, a nonprofit research foundation exclusively dedicated to developing therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD). Shortly after I took my job as Director of Medicinal Chemistry, I watched a video of a little girl with juvenile HD, who couldn’t blow out her birthday candles because HD made her shake uncontrollably. As a mother this affected me deeply. Wanting to find medicines that can help people suffering from HD has been my goal and defined my career since that day.
Here’s where my optimism comes in again. I believe that what I do today will soon benefit the lives of people with HD. I find my work incredibly fulfilling, even though my life as an HD scientist and mother of three school-age children has had its share of challenges. I’ve had to rely on my support system of family, nannies, and friends. But I have also learned to live life mindful of where I am and what I am doing at that moment. Just as important as our scientific questions are the ones that ask, “What is most important right now? Today? This week?” Being a mother has never been in conflict with being a scientist for me, though I don’t take for granted the mother-scientist who came before me. On the contrary, it’s a central part of who I am, and I feel stronger as a scientist for being able to tackle the needs of a family and the needs of my work.
At this stage in my career it is important to me to set the stage for women in STEM so they know that it is possible to be a scientist with a family. When you’re from a traditional culture, women are inhibited by the role models they see. I have a family, I am an active volunteer in my children’s schools, and I am an active participant in my field of research. I want to contribute to changing the picture of role models our young women see.
I have been fortunate to have had good mentors in my life. We need to continue to support young women in STEM. Someday, they could grow to become a medicinal chemist, working on a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. But they won’t have to work on HD, because those medicines are coming soon!
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.
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.
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.
As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, I worked with immigrant populations from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The immigrants were mostly women and children who had just arrived in Hawaii and were eager to learn English and fit into American society. To teach them English, I used experiences from my daily life instead of using textbooks. I shared my Native Hawaiian culture with them, and, in return, they shared their values, culture, and stories with me. My students were eager to communicate with me when they were passionate about what we were discussing, and I learned a lot, too. This kind of exchange between teacher and student was revolutionary to me and completely different from the educational system that I grew up with.
When I was in school, I learned English in a completely different way. As Native Hawaiians, both my parents’ and my generation were forced to learn English and not practice or respect our traditional native language. This devaluing of our language felt like a devaluing of our culture. When I was able to teach English in a new way, it was a very healing experience. My classroom celebrated people’s diversity and culture. We thought of English as a common language that enabled vastly different people to communicate.
Because of this lack of respect for our Native Hawaiian language and culture, I struggled to succeed in the American educational system, which supported competition and individuality over teamwork and community. I wasn’t always an A student. I never had teachers who were Hawaiian, and I had no one in school who understood what kinds of challenges I was facing as a Native Hawaiian student. It was hard to flourish in that environment because Native Hawaiians value Ohana, the family, (immediate, extended, friends, and neighbors) and Aloha, compassion and kindness -in human interaction. Luckily, I had the support of my community and family to get me where I am today.
Ohana and Aloha aren’t just Native Hawaiians beliefs; it’s who we are. Ohana and Aloha have been central to my life, from growing up playing team sports to interacting with people during my school years and my time as a research scientist. Later, these values became part of my career in public health. Ohana and Aloha were taught to me by my parents, who were very supportive of my education, especially because neither of them or anyone else in my family went to the university.
I received a scholarship in basketball and went to the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
Because I was an athlete, I was interested in how people made choices about their health and behavior. This directed me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in human development.
Once I discovered that my strengths were my values of Ohana and Aloha, I knew that I wanted to do work with Hawaii’s multi-ethnic population and stay in the health sciences field, so I pursued a master’s degree in public health education at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
My current research is in developing a quit smoking program for native Hawaiians. There are a number of smoking cessation programs across the nation, but Native Hawaiians continue to smoke at a higher rate than other ethnic groups, and I want to know why. My hypothesis is that it may be that Native Hawaiians need more cultural components in the smoking cessation program. For example, the programs may be more effective if they involve the whole family, or perhaps people would succeed more if they worked in small group sessions instead of following the typical American model of one–on-one counseling.
Being a Native Hawaiian scientist working with a Native Hawaiian population is of tremendous benefit because there are so few Native Hawaiian women in the sciences, in the university system, or on faculties. Native Hawaiian faculty at the university numbers only two percent while our population in the state is twenty percent. We desperately need more Hawaiian role models in the universities and in public health programs like the one I am developing. The Native Hawaiian population needs to have people they can relate to, who understand their culture, their upbringing, and their obstacles and can help them succeed in the American educational system. Being a role model and providing an opportunity to conduct research and learn new skills, to help others move on and create careers for themselves; these are the legacies I would like to leave other Native Hawaiians.
Even though I wasn’t an A student, I made it to where I am today. You can say it was hard work and determination, and it was, but I think my family and friends and the compassion of others helped quite a bit. Ohana and Aloha go a long way in life, for they are virtues rooted within.
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.
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.