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Pathways program provides STEM opportunities for Native American students

4 ASU undergraduates spent summer in Berkeley National Lab

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September 26, 2023

Hannah Nockideneh grew up in Wide Ruins, a community on the Navajo Nation so small that its population was listed as 176 in the 2010 U.S. Census.

As a child, Nockideneh heard stories about the constellations from her ancestors. The stories fascinated her. She kept asking: Why? Why?

“I wanted to know more,” she said.

But when she started going to school, her questions went unanswered. The subject of science was an afterthought.

“A lot of us (Native Americans) live on reservations or in very rural communities,” Nockideneh said. “I feel like we shouldn’t be neglected, but we kind of are. We’re not exposed to what kids learn in other schools and towns.”

Nockideneh is talking about her childhood less than two months after completing a summer internship in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

She was one of four Arizona State University undergraduate Native American students who took part in the 10-week ASU-Berkeley Lab STEM Pathways program out of ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences and led by Gary Moore, associate professor also affiliated with the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery.

The initiative develops and enhances educational pathways for undergraduate Indigenous students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, while aiming to disrupt systemic racism, bias and discrimination in institutional policy and practice as it relates to STEM.

“Even though I come from what seems like a small background, I made it to a national lab,” said Nockideneh, a junior who is double-majoring in physics and mathematics. “It made me so much more confident.”

According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, of the more than 55,000 students who received PhD degrees in the United States in 2019, only 40 were Native American/Alaska Native in STEM-related fields.

“Investments in research and education and the public understanding of science and technology are all key drivers for our nation’s health and prosperity,” Moore said. “And in a sense, this really relies on having equitable and diverse participation in the studies.”

During their time at Berkeley Lab, the students worked 40-hour weeks, received funding support to cover travel, stipend, housing costs and other materials, had access to a cohort of peers from across the United States, wrote a research paper with their mentor group, and presented a poster session during the final week of the program.

Moore personally understands the need for the Pathways program, which is funded by a $250,000 Creating Equitable Pathways to STEM Graduate Education grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. His grandparents grew up on the Powhatan reservation back East.

“I can appreciate some of the additional struggles, but I can also appreciate the opportunities that come with these sort of summer internship programs,” Moore said. “I participated in a summer research program that was funded through the National Science Foundation. And it really changed my entire life, my career trajectory and convinced me that I was interested in pursuing a PhD.

“So it was that personal experience for me that made me say, ‘Wow, this is something that really can be a game-changer for people.’”

The four undergraduate students who worked at Berkeley lab — Nockideneh, Hozhoo Emerson, Jordan Barriga and Kai-Se Toledo, who are all Navajo — said the experience deepened their love of science and made them contemplate pursuing a PhD in a STEM-related field.

“Honestly, I feel like in the STEM fields, if you’re thinking about graduate school, it’s important to have these research opportunities accessible,” said Barriga, a junior majoring in chemical engineering whose work at the lab consisted of researching membranes used in fuel cells, with an eye toward clean and renewable energy. “And I know sometimes they can be competitive. So to have a program catered to Native Americans specifically and to be able to be represented in a national lab is really cool.”

Barriga said it can be difficult for Native American students to pursue careers in science because their education in the field is often lacking. She said she was fortunate to attend Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff.

“I feel like in comparison to some of the people that I grew up with, I was privileged to go a prep school,” Barriga said. “That prepared me a lot for ASU, looking for more opportunities and having more knowledge about college and what to expect. I feel like that’s something a lot of other Native American students struggle with.”

Emerson, a senior majoring in geological sciences, said she was ready to ditch a career in science until she participated in the Pathways program.

“Oh man, I had given up on science,” said Emerson, who in the internship studied the healing properties of sagebrush tea, often used on Native American lands for medicinal purposes. “Just flat out, I was so lonely. I was so isolated. In my brain, I was like, ‘I shouldn’t be a scientist.’

“And then I did the internship, and I was like, ‘I am a scientist.’ And it’s really important for me to be there because if we want more people in the earth science field that look like me and talk like me and act like me, I need to be present in the earth science field.”

The grant from the Sloan Foundation funded a three-year cycle. The first year — the 2022–23 school year — was spent planning the program, and this summer was the first year that students spent time in the Berkeley lab.

Moore believes the program already has been proven successful based on the feedback he received from the students when he visited them in Berkeley.

“It was really eye-opening for them to see research in a national lab setting,” Moore said. “Some of these students were working on projects where they’re inventing the next generation of lasers. That sort of research you can do at a national lab is different from an academic environment in terms of the scale of some of the projects.”

Moore was so encouraged he hopes the program can be expanded nationally.

“There’s an opportunity for this to expand both in terms of scope and scale, and we’re hoping that this could serve as a model system that could be applied to other institutes or national labs,” he said. “This is just the start, we hope.”

Top photo: Trent Northern (right), senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, talks to ASU faculty Gary Moore and undergraduate student Hozhoo Emerson at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory this summer. Photo courtesy Lillian Hensleigh. 


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