Native Knowledge

Program inspires future generation of Indian scientists


Aaron Thomas, a chemistry professor at UM, directs Indigenous Research and STEM Education, a program that seeks to bring more Native American students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. (Photo by Todd Goodrich)
UM hydrology graduate student Casey Ryan conducts fieldwork in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest in April.
UM students Naomi Branson, left, Dirk Lawhon, and Emilyn Bauer pose with the Mars Rover on a spring break trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.


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Aaron Thomas, a chemistry professor at UM, directs Indigenous Research and STEM Education, a program that seeks to bring more Native American students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. (Photo by Todd Goodrich)
Aaron Thomas, a chemistry professor at UM, directs Indigenous Research and STEM Education, a program that seeks to bring more Native American students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. (Photo by Todd Goodrich)

Aaron Thomas grew up fixing things. His father was a welding engineer who taught Thomas from a young age to look at what was broken, find the cause, and repair it—maybe even make it better.

“He was very much one of those people who, if there was ever anything around the house or the car that needed fixing, would at least try to do it himself first,” Thomas says. “I kind of have that attitude, too. I may not succeed or figure it out, but I at least want to give it a try.”

The desire to explore the anatomy of the world led Thomas to a deep interest in science and technology. In 1996, he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in chemical engineering and went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Florida.

But he was different from his classmates in at least one way.

Even though he grew up in Albuquerque, N.Mex., he’s a member of the Navajo Nation, with family members who still reside in hogans on the reservation. Being a Native American college student studying science is rare. Even now, the number of Native Americans entering college across the United States is a small fraction: In 2012, Native Americans made up 0.9 percent of undergrads and 0.5 percent of graduate students. In 2001, there was exactly one Native American student listed nationwide as having graduated with a doctorate in chemical engineering.

“I’m pretty sure I know who that was,” Thomas says. “That was me.”

Thomas now is a chemistry professor at the University of Montana and director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education [IRSE], a program that seeks to bring more Native American students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. The program is situated on UM’s campus and supports Native American students pursuing degrees in science and technology, but a large part of the program is doing outreach to middle and high school students across Montana.

Last summer, Thomas, program coordinator Jon Stannard, and IRSE undergraduates showed middle school students how to build and launch model rockets. They used eggs to replicate the landing challenges of the Mars Rover, and they constructed tissue-paper balloons to demonstrate how hot air can lift an object. This spring, the IRSE crew trained Ronan and Arlee students to assemble desktop computers.

The idea is to teach young kids the prerequisites and develop the passion they need for science before they even set foot on a college campus. It’s the kind of engineering and problem solving Thomas learned when he was growing up: See where the problems are, know what the solutions look like, and fix them.

Math is one of the problems. Some reservation schools don’t offer the algebra classes that give students the jumpstart they’ll need in college. And even when the schools do offer the appropriate level of math classes in both middle and high school, they aren’t always required. It isn’t until these students arrive at college that they realize they should have studied more math.

The other issue is that many kids and young adults on reservations, even now, come from families in which no one attended college.

“I think there is an issue for first-generation students,” Thomas says. “If their parents never went to school and they don’t necessarily value education, then it’s very difficult for that student to successfully make it through school and move on to college.”

Thomas has traveled to all seven reservations in Montana to get kids interested in STEM learning. One of the greatest assets in his bag of tricks is a background with NASA. Before he came to UM, he taught for eleven years at the University of Idaho and directed a program that works with NASA.

“To me, that’s a big hook for students,” Thomas says. “It’s also the culmination of all applied engineering and science coming together—that’s what NASA does. It’s exciting. I try to show them that this is what they could ultimately do. I say, ‘It may not seem related to your tribes and people, but imagine working there and coming back and doing something marvelous and wonderful on the reservation.’ And that’s a possibility.”

Casey Ryan isn’t a gear-head, he just loves being outdoors. He fishes with a garage sale fishing rod, floats the rivers in a beat-up kayak, and hunts with a rifle he inherited from his grandfather. He’s an enrolled Salish tribal member from Missoula, with family scattered from the Bitterroot to Polson. As a kid, he saw that the mountains, streams, and lakes all were inextricably linked. It didn’t occur to him until he was a little older that not everyone values natural resources as a top priority.

“Growing up and hearing about how so many of these things are threatened made me want to step in and do something,” Ryan says. “Water is everywhere. Everything on Earth requires water to live. What are we going to do if there’s no one to protect this resource? We typically don’t value things until they’re gone, and I don’t want that to be the case with things I hold so dear.”

Though he was clear on how he felt about the natural world, he wasn’t sure at first what to do about it. Ryan enrolled at UM in 2003 as an undergraduate. Like so many students who don’t know what they want to study, he spent his first few years in college a little lost. He dropped out of school for a time to work, and when he returned, he dove back into his studies full force, graduating with honors in geography and enrolling in graduate school to study forestry with an emphasis in hydrology.

A major factor leading to his change of direction in college was UM’s Native American Research Lab, then directed by Michael Ceballos.

“At the time, the objective was to bring Native Americans into the STEM fields and involve them in the lab to get them some research experience,” Ryan says.

Ceballos ran NARL for four years and had a big impact on Native American, indigenous, and other graduate students who used the lab. When Thomas was hired as Ceballos’ replacement in 2012, he latched onto the same mission but took it in a different direction. These days, it’s called IRSE, and it’s not so much a physical lab as it is an education program and network. Currently, five Native American students working in fields such as forestry, biochemistry, and anthropology meet each month at The Payne Family Native American Center to talk about their research. Those students also have opportunities to apply for grant money and help Thomas do outreach on reservations. Thomas often serves as a member of thesis committees and as an adviser in situations both academic and personal.

“I wouldn’t know that there are other Native Americans engaged in the sciences at UM if we didn’t have the opportunity to come together,” Ryan says. “It’s great to have that social connection. It’s great to have those academic connections and even foster those someday into professional connections.”

Ryan currently studies snowpack distribution and how it melts. He also has an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The mission statement is to preserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people,” he says. “That is very close to my heart. It’s something I feel is important and that I’m proud of. I am also attracted to the idea of bringing home this skill set to my reservation, which is the Flathead Reservation, and using it to protect the resources we have. I want to make a difference.”

Another graduate student, Moses Leavens, grew up in Great Falls raised by his mother, who worked several jobs to help support the family.

Leavens, of Chippewa and Cree descent, earned degrees in math and biology at the University of Great Falls, and during that time he held an internship at the health department, where he became interested in viruses. He was one of a few students nationally selected into the Amgen Scholars Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he eventually enrolled at UM as a Sloan Scholar in biochemistry and biophysics. So far, he has done research on Rift Valley fever and on folding proteins in cells that lead to degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Both research projects have widespread application.

“Rift is a public health threat native to Africa, but it affects international travel, and with climate change it could spread,” he says. “There’s data that it has.”

The other impact he wants to make is on Native students. He plans to attend some of the Gear Up camps with kids on the reservations to show them how exciting his work can be.

Some IRSE students hope to use their studies to directly address issues in and around the land from which they came. Ranalda Tsosie, for instance, is a Sloan Scholar working on a Ph.D. in chemistry. She’s studying the extent to which chromate in drinking water damages human DNA, and she wants to find a repair mechanism to reduce the damage. It’s an issue that her family on the Navajo Reservation deals with due to uranium and heavy metal dumping.

The cultural knowledge that a Native American scientist can bring to the reservation is vital. Understanding the inner workings of a community can help a clean-up effort or public health project immensely. But having top-notch scientists has to be part of the equation.

“I think foremost it’s important that you have the most qualified person in the position and not just that they’re Native American,” Ryan says. “And that’s where opportunities like IRSE come in to provide those hands-on experiences with students—providing them with research opportunities so they can be successful in graduate school, providing them with a community so they can have people to talk to if they have challenges with their research, and providing them with mentors. That’s why programs like this one are important to have on campus. Once you have all those things in place, you can get Native Americans who are educated, experienced, and qualified to take on these positions so that they can come in with a science perspective and a cultural perspective and tie the two together to do what’s best for the land.”

There are big plans for IRSE on the horizon. Thomas and Stannard plan to host other summer Gear Up camps at Fort Peck, Flathead, and Rocky Boy reservations. They’re currently trying to start a chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society so UM students can become part of an even larger network of Native Americans in STEM fields. They can attend conferences, apply for scholarships, and find jobs. One day, Thomas hopes to build an entrepreneurship program for students looking to start their own companies.

Ultimately, it’s the students who will decide where their STEM future takes them, but the idea that reservations could benefit is exciting to Thomas and his students.

Meanwhile, more Native students at UM are getting excited about science. Over spring break, three Native American undergraduate students traveled with Thomas to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the Mars Rover was made. The students got to talk with scientists—some of them also of Native American descent—to hear about what it’s like to build machines that end up on an entirely different planet. They got to see the main control room and the “Mars Yard,” which is a simulation of the rocky red Martian landscape where the scientists improve their rover prototypes.

Naomi Branson, a computer IT major with a passion for programming, was one of the students who went on the trip.

“The experience was amazing,” she says. “It really inspired and fueled my drive to continue my education—to do something I love.”

One of the main goals of IRSE is tearing down the perception that college is for one group of people and not another. That science is too hard. That it’s only other people who dream about building robots and exploring space, and finding cures. Realizing those are not true is the key that opens up the door. It’s the first fix.

“I think when you come from a small place, you put a lot of things on a pedestal,” Branson says. “You think a lot of things are unreachable for you. The cool thing about this program is that they show you there are a lot of amazing opportunities available to you if you have the drive and skills and passion to pursue them. It makes you realize that nothing is out of reach.”

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