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.
Like many kids growing up in the 90s, I can remember the first time I played a computer game. My elementary school had an Apple II, where we played The Oregon Trail. It seemed magical and I was curious about what was inside the case, making pixels appear and disappear and guiding me through the story.
My parents had moved us from Guadalajara, Mexico to the United States when I was six for better work and educational opportunities. When they saw my passion for computers, they pieced together what little money they had and bought me a 486 DX2 desktop computer for our home. It wasn’t long before I was tying up the phone line, tearing through America Online free trial CDs and begging for our own dialup internet account. We had settled in Auburn, California, and during my high school years, I convinced our electronics teacher to let us have a zero period. Every morning before school started, I could do self-study programming with other students who were interested in computers.
On the way home from a basketball game one day, a teammate’s dad suggested that I apply for a summer internship where he worked at Hewlett-Packard (HP). I sat at my computer to create my first ever resumé, applied, and got the internship the summer before college.
During my internship at HP, I met another intern who was studying computer science (CS) at Howard University. I was a little intimidated by the amount of math required to pursue a CS degree, but he helped change my perception. I was not naturally gifted in math, but he said all I needed to do was do my homework, get clarification when I needed from study groups or office hours, and study for exams. This simple advice was exactly what I needed at the time.
Enrolling at San Jose State University (SJSU) felt like being reacquainted with my Mexican roots. I’d been listening to punk rock, alternative music, and rap, but at SJSU, I woke up to the sounds of mariachi and was introduced to Spanish rock bands and artists that I really enjoyed. To pay for school, I worked at a web design firm and then at a startup called Excite@Home, where I did web development for the intranet site of the company.
Unfortunately, the company went from 3,500 employees to just around 500 in the course of a year and a half and I had a front row seat to watching the dot com bubble burst. Management laid-off most of my team and moved me from part-time to full-time to help with internal communication while the company continued to shut off operations. I continued chipping away at my credits, taking a math class early in the morning and then working full-time.
After finally getting laid-off, I tried to get another job to continue to pay for school but there was an oversaturation of software engineers in the Bay Area. My original plan after I graduated was to get an MBA and go back to work for HP or another major tech corporation. One day, I received a letter in the mail from Dr. Herbert Silber about a program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). The letter asked, “Have you ever thought about doing a PhD?” I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed financial assistance to pay for school, so I applied and was accepted.
Through MARC, I began doing research with a professor in the CS department and found that I loved doing research! We’d start with an open question, figure out how to formulate the problem, come up with a plan to test our hypothesis, and then work through different solutions. I no longer wanted to be get an MBA, I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor. But, I didn’t want to get a PhD in CS, I wanted to use my computational skills to solve science problems.
That’s when I was introduced to Dr. Frank Bayless who runs the Student Enrichment Office at San Francisco State. The office has various programs that allow minority students to do research and prepare them for grad school. I studied bioinformatics in the CS department which helped solidified the research I was interested in. From there, I applied and went to grad school at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to the Biomedical Informatics program, which had a strong biophysics and bioinformatics focus. Having been formally trained in CS, I needed to catch up as best as I could on biology, biochemistry, chemistry, cell biology, and pharmacology so that I would be successful throughout my graduate studies. It was a daunting task, but I was able to do it!
At UCSF, I did lab rotations where I developed computational methods to study enzymes, researched the genetics of Latino/African American populations, implemented a system to study the structure of RNA, analyzed malaria messenger RNA, and developed methods for predicting the side effects of small molecule therapeutics.
I decided to join the lab of Dr. Ajay Jain where I developed computation methods which combined the positive and negative effects of drugs with their 3D molecular structure to predict interactions with proteins that can lead to undesired side effects. I learned so much from my advisor and I feel grateful that I was able to work with him during my graduate school career.
With my graduate work completed, data science had emerged as a field where individuals like myself who are trained as scientists can have an impact solving real-world problems and building data products. Now, I am part of the founding team at an artificial intelligence company called Primer. My role has changed quite a bit from data science software engineer, to technical lead, and now manager. It has been an amazing experience building technology from scratch. It very much feels like doing research, except the product is not a research paper but a piece of technology.
Some of the things that are valued in academia – communication, mentoring, research – can be satisfied in industry. Evolving and changing one’s mind about a career path is normal and it is good to be flexible. Building technology from scratch has allowed me find innovative solutions to difficult problems and, as the company grows, I am taking more of a management role which has allowed me to mentor other team members. Appropriate training should be provided to grad students who want to persue careers outside of academia. A lot of progress has been made at universities, but there is more work to be done.
For me, it’s fulfilling to be part of a field that brings all my strengths and interests together. I have seen how my persistence and determination has continued to pay off! One thing I’ve learned is that your learning is up to you. The teachers and professors are there to teach you, but at the end it is your responsibility. I was in an university setting for 14 years (undergrad, Masters, and PhD), but at the end of the day, I achieved my goal of getting a PhD and no one can take away from me.
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
Craig Love, PhD
Sometimes you realize that there are certain moments in your life that influence you in a profound way. For me, one of those moments came when I was in junior high, and I saw a picture of an Indian doing a Sun Dance. Although I am Southern Arapaho, I did not live a very traditional life as a child. But when I saw this picture, I knew that I would some day do a Sun Dance—and from then on, my Native American background became very important to me. The Sun Dance represents the cycle of birth and death, whether symbolic or real, and it represents both tradition and transition. Now, years (and many Sun Dances) later, my cultural heritage defines much of the scientific work that I do. There have been many transitions in my life, some of which have been very unexpected, but my cultural heritage has provided me with a strong personal foundation, despite all of the changes in my life.
One of the very first surprise transitions in my life was when I decided, after beginning college, that I did not want to become a minister, as everyone in my family had assumed I would. (I had been playing the role of counselor and mediator in my family for a long time.) I enrolled as a psychology major at the University of Kentucky, thinking that a minister needed to understand how people work and think. My family did not understand my decision to go to college or support me while I was doing it. After delving into academic studies, I realized that I was not going to be a minister; I was going to be a psychologist instead!
However, the area of psychology that I wanted to study changed. My master’s degree was in a field of psychology called radical behaviorism, which means that I studied how different types of punishment and reward change animals’ behavior. But while I was working on my thesis, I realized that I was very bored with my work. I decided that I was going to have to rethink once more what psychology meant to me. This time, I decided that I wanted to work with people, so I went into cognitive psychology and got my Ph.D. at Temple University in 1978.
Before I’d even finished my Ph.D., my life took yet another unexpected turn. Jobs for cognitive psychologists were hard to come by in the late seventies, and the only job I could find was doing research for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the University of Miami. Although I fundamentally disagreed with many aspects of the work, all my current research interests are a result of having taken that job.
After four years at the University of Miami, I worked in the prison system for another nine years. I became interested in substance abuse treatment and prevention because it occurred to me that 80–90% of the people I’d worked with in prisons were involved with drugs and alcohol. I knew from experience that prison did not help “cure” them of their addictions. Eventually, I left the prison system and went to work at Brown University, where I did research about substance abuse and prisons.
At Brown, I got to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before. I designed a Native American studies curriculum and taught subjects that I really care about. I also helped Native American students adjust to the university system and then later adjust to going home again. That transition is very difficult in college because you aren’t the same person when you go home as you were when you left. Sometimes this is especially hard for Native kids from reservations, who often feel that their communities don’t understand them anymore.
Now I am the senior study director at a corporation called Westat. I research substance abuse treatment programs in Native American communities. Substance abuse is a huge problem in many Native American communities because they tend to be poor and to have little hope that life will ever improve. I am strongly against the use of prisons to control substance abuse. I don’t think that it helps substance abusers or the communities they come from. I work to develop programs that will help entire communities heal and to prevent more people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
One of the most important aspects of helping Native communities overcome substance abuse problems is to help them realize that their cultures and ways of living may be different from other people’s, but they are just as valuable. When people realize that who they are and what they do is important, drugs and alcohol become much less appealing. Long ago, the Sun Dance introduced me to a new outlook on life—one that embraces change and impermanence. This foundation has given me the strength to help other Native people learn to value our heritage and contributions to the world so that we, as a community, can heal.
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.
Christopher Andronicos, PhD
Growing up in New Mexico, I was always interested in the stories about how the mountains and rivers surrounding me came to be. I remember being told the mountains outside Albuquerque were uplifted during a single huge earthquake and I questioned it immediately, wanting to know more. I also loved hiking in the mountains because I could get away from everything and be on my own.
Even though I was always good at science, I had a really tough time applying myself. My family was very poor; my mom struggled to keep enough food on the table for my brother and me. She chased jobs throughout northern New Mexico and we moved so much that I had changed schools seven times by the time I graduated high school.
To help my mom, I started washing dishes at a local Albuquerque restaurant when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 19, I was managing a fancy restaurant in town. I had guys twice my age working under me and I saw my future in their toil. I knew this wasn’t the life I wanted, but I didn’t know how to break free.
If I hadn’t met my wife, Kelly, I wouldn’t be a geologist today. She is four years older than me and had already graduated from the University of New Mexico (UNM) when we started dating. She pushed me to enroll and helped me apply to school. I got in despite my bad grades in high school and I had to take a lot of remedial classes in the first couple of years.
I enrolled with the intention of becoming a physicist since I was good at science. But the physics class was in the basement and it was terrible! We were indoors, working with equations and doing meaningless experiments. It felt so sterile, closed in, not what I wanted to do with my life.
In my third year, I was still trying to choose a major when I took a geology class by accident. I was immediately enthralled. Geology allowed me to combine my love of the outdoors and science. I saw these guys getting paid to go camping and I knew that was the job I wanted.
While I was studying at UNM, I had several significant mentors who paved my way to a successful academic career. Gary Smith, who taught my intro to geology class, arranged my first job that wasn’t in a restaurant or a car shop. I worked updating a database at the New Mexico Geology Museum and, while the job was tedious, it was my pathway out of the restaurant industry.
Through Gary I met Jeff Grambling, who hired me as a geology field assistant and taught me all about mapping complex geology. He was an amazing friend, mentor, and teacher. While I was working with him, he died from a brain tumor. He was only 40 years old, younger than I am now. I still feel the loss of him greatly.
When Jeff passed, Karl Karlstrom took over for him and he was also an important mentor. He gave me a strong foundation in structural geology that I still draw on today. In fact, I still use my notes from his classes as a basis for some of my lectures at Cornell today. Karl really pushed me to go to graduate school. For example, once he had me lead a field trip for a group of students visiting from Princeton University. I showed them the local geology and they were so impressed with my knowledge that they thought I was a postdoc. The Princeton professor who brought the students to New Mexico ended up becoming my PhD advisor. Later, Karl told me he knew it would work out that way.
When it came time to apply for graduate school, I was scared to leave my comfort zone of New Mexico. I had spent my whole life there and I loved the blue skies, green chili, the people, and the geology. Also, I was the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone go to a university and graduate school. I was terrified to move to New Jersey, but Karl really pushed me to go to the best university I could. If it weren’t for his advice, I would have stayed in New Mexico and I probably wouldn’t be a professor at Cornell.
Going to a place like Princeton was definitely intimidating, but I knew it was a great opportunity and I did my best to fit in. My PhD advisor, Lincoln Hollister, granted me amazing opportunities and treated me like a colleague instead of a student, which made all the difference for me. We co-authored some really high-impact papers together and he invited me into big multi-institutional projects. He also introduced me to the geology of British Columbia, which I’ve now studied for the last 15 years.
I am now an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, working in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences studying tectonics, structural geology, and igneous and metamorphic petrology. Simply put, I try to figure out how the earth loses heat. The earth is a heat machine, hot on the inside and cold on the outside. Ultimately, that’s why we’re able to live on it. Without plate tectonics, which help circulate the heat to the surface, the earth would cease to bear life.
To answer these big questions, I’m in the field a lot, which is one of the best parts of my job. I recently calculated that I’ve probably slept outside for two-and-a-half to three years of my professional life, which amounts to two or more months in the field every year.
While I love being in the field, it’s been really difficult being away from my family so much. I was gone when my son learned how to talk and I’m still sad I missed out on that. Also, a lot of the places I go are really remote. There are no cell phones, no Internet, no nothing. During my PhD studies, I’d get dropped off by a helicopter in the wilderness of British Columbia and be gone for weeks, never talking to my family. I’m very lucky that my wife, Kelly, puts up with it. When she met me, I never imagined I’d even go to college and she never imagined that she would marry a guy who’d be going to crazy places full of grizzly bears just to look at rocks.
So much of my life is defined by what I do as a geologist, yet I’ve actually spent more years working in restaurants because I started so young. It’s important to know that wherever you are during your teenage years does not have to define where you end up being. I had a rough and wild childhood living in bad neighborhoods and I didn’t do well in school. But all that didn’t mean I couldn’t go on to something better. Being a geologist wasn’t even on my radar; it really happened by accident. I always tell my students to do the best they can and don’t be afraid to do really scary things, like, for example, going to Princeton—something truly terrifying, but that in the end turned out really well!
Carmen Nappo, PhD
When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies with my uncle. During the 1950s, science fiction films became really popular. They had titles like Teenagers from Outer Space or When Worlds Collide. Even though these movies may have been far-fetched, they led to my first interest in science.
My uncle was not only my movie buddy. He also opened up the world to me. He taught me algebra, literature and philosophy, and he also showed me how to tap dance! He and my mother grew up in show business as part of a traveling vaudeville act. They were Oglala Sioux, and although my grandfather was not proud of his culture, the family earned their living performing in costume as an Indian act. He did not teach his children about the Sioux heritage. At that time, there was a tremendous amount of prejudice toward Native Americans, and my grandfather did not want his children to identify with a group that was so discriminated against.
My father, who emigrated with his family from Italy, was also a vaudeville musician and eventually became the musical conductor for the Holiday on Ice show. My mother ice-skated in the show. My brother and I often traveled with them when the show was on tour. But during the school year, we were enrolled in military or boarding schools. We lived in a lower-middle-class Italian neighborhood in Chicago. We spoke Italian, and my brother and I went to a Catholic school after my parents separated. My mother had a lot of grief because the community did not accept her. Even though she wasn’t raised Sioux, she looked Native American. We had further difficulties, since divorce was also not accepted in our primarily Catholic neighborhood. But I felt like I was a pretty normal kid.
My mother remarried when I was 13, and my stepfather moved us to Victorville, California, in 1958. I was taken from a city of five million people to a city of 5,000 people located in the Mojave Desert. That was a lonely time for me and I experienced a lot of culture shock. I spent most of my time reading and doing homework, since I was planning to go to college. When I was 17 or 18, I became inspired by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an original renaissance man. Like Cellini, I wanted to become an expert in different subjects. Going to college was not expected back then, because you didn’t need a degree to get a job. But I wanted to learn about literature and science, and get my Ph.D.
I decided to pursue a career in physics because I liked the subject in high school. I started at the University of California, Riverside, in 1959. I got married at age 23, and we had our first child, Cora, after I completed my degree in 1966. During this time, I worked for the university while my wife worked for the phone company. I paid my way through school without any financial assistance. After I finished my master’s at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1968, we were tired of being poor, so I took a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researching atmospheric diffusion. I studied how air quality in our country is affected by the dispersion of pollution from sources like smokestacks or cars.
Later in life, when my first daughter was old enough to go to college, I went back too! With a scholarship from NOAA, I commuted weekly to the Georgia Institute of Technology, and completed my Ph.D. in 1989. Besides being a personal goal, completing my education made it possible for me to become a professor.
I took the opportunity to take my research in a new direction, and learned about atmospheric gravity waves. I had always wondered why trees sometimes rustle at night, even when there shouldn’t be any wind. One theory is that these turbulent events are generated by atmospheric gravity waves. These waves are similar to the waves on the sea, except air is pushed up and down, instead of water. Atmospheric gravity waves can be created by thunderstorms, fast-moving cold fronts, or air moving over mountains. The turbulence generated by these waves can increase the spread of pollutants, and so it’s important to study how the waves are created. When I decided to research this field, there wasn’t much information out there. It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to write a book about it, so that’s what I did.
Maybe it was my fascination with the Italian Renaissance, or maybe it’s from growing up with multi-talented vaudeville performers, but I have always loved learning about new and different subjects. Now I am learning about my own history, since my Native American background wasn’t really recognized because “it didn’t belong” when I grew up. My grandfather took the name of DeSoto because he wanted to appear more Spanish than Native American. It was really sad, because the forces of society succeeded in destroying his interest in his own culture. But the reverse is true for me.
Since I was denied that part of my background, my interest in my heritage has been rekindled. I want to learn more about it, and help young Native Americans interested in science. One of my colleagues, a member of SACNAS, invited me to give a talk at a SACNAS conference. Science is such a common language. It is about thinking, learning, and using something that everyone has, no matter what your race, class or gender is: your mind.
Gilbert John, PhD
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.
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.
Ken Ridgway, PhD
The greatest inspiration for my career as a geologist was the relationship my family and I had with the land while I was growing up. I was raised in rural New Jersey, but my life was not what you would expect. I’m a Lenape (Delaware) Indian, and I lived with my parents in a community of Lenapes. We were farmers, hunters, and trappers, so we had to watch the weather cycles, the tides, and the comings and goings of insects because of the effects that these forces of nature could have on the crops and animals that we fed on. Living closely with the land tuned me into what seemed like amazing mysteries of nature and made me very curious. I wanted to know the scientific explanations behind what I observed as a child. So years later, when I went to West Virginia University, I started taking science classes. In school, I found out that I could build a career on investigating questions about the Earth so I decided that a job in the sciences was what I wanted.
It was a big deal for me to go to college because no one in my family had gone before. Many of my guidance counselors or teachers thought I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t receive much encouragement. I faced a lot of discrimination in high school—sometimes people didn’t even believe that I was Native American. They didn’t believe that Native Americans ever lived in New Jersey, even though that’s where the Lenape have always lived. This denial of my cultural background was very difficult for me because being Native American is such an important aspect of my life.
Fortunately I had role models like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught me that I had the right to excel and that I could excel, even if people didn’t accept me for who I was. Part of what I had to overcome was the feeling that I needed to blend in and not make waves. If you’ve faced a lot of discrimination, what you often learn is that life is easier if you blend in as much as possible. But excelling in school means that you stand out, which can be pretty uncomfortable for people who don’t want to draw much attention to themselves. However, when I got to college, I felt like there was much less racism than in high school. That’s what I love about universities. They’re about ideas and about how hard you can work and how clearly you can think. As a professor at Purdue University, I try to make sure the quiet students have the same opportunities as the students who are more comfortable with standing out.
I always knew I was lucky to be able to go to college, and I also knew that I wanted to have a career that would let me help my community. I felt like I had to make the most of my opportunities because there were many Lenape kids who never got to go to college. I decided very early on that I wanted to be a professor, so I got my Master’s at Indiana University, and finally my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. In between, I worked for Chevron Oil because I wanted to know about what kinds of jobs geology students could get after college, so I could be a better teacher.
Now that I’m a professor, I have the chance to take my students to places they’ve never been before. My own connections with nature are so important that I want to expose my students to similar opportunities. Some of them may go on to help make decisions about natural resources and other environmental issues, so it’s very important to me that they have an appreciation for the land. Sometimes, we fly into very isolated parts of Alaska for two or three months. That’s an amazing experience, especially for students who have grown up in cities, because it’s really a completely untouched ecosystem. We’re not at the top of the food chain, we’re drinking water that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, and we’re living with wildlife like caribou and grizzly bears. Experiences like this make me appreciate the Earth and its resources as a gift, and it makes me want to help my students learn to appreciate this gift and take care of it as best we can.
One way we can take care of the gifts we find in the Earth is by knowing their history. In my current research, I work with sedimentary rocks, which are rocks that form at the surface of the earth. By looking at these types of rocks, I can read the history of the Earth and find out things like when periods of global warming and global cooling occurred, and what effects those temperature changes had on life on Earth. This allows us to better predict the effects of the current global warming trend on plant and animal communities.
I also enjoy helping people, especially Native American communities, make decisions about drilling for oil and natural gas; locating wells for drinking water; and safe locations for landfills. Native American reservations often have many valuable natural resources, but sometimes the ways they are extracted can destroy the land or places that are sacred to that community. I think that it’s very important that there are Native American geologists so that Native American communities who are struggling with environmental issues can use their own people to make informed decision that will allow them to grow with technology but also keep their culture.
Throughout my life, I’ve had to balance my love of the Earth and my Native American heritage, which is closely tied to the land, with the necessity of using natural resources for modern life. I believe that it is possible to achieve this balance and to do so in a way that will benefit everyone. But to create this balance, we need people who care about more than money. We need people who love the land and who care for all people, to help make these decisions in intelligent and culturally sensitive ways.