Two students work for more Native Americans in the sciences


Two students work for more Native Americans in the sciences

April 07, 2015

Native American students have traditionally had difficulties breaking into science-related fields, like biology and engineering.

Two University of Minnesota students, Jake Grossman and Siddharth Iyengar, are working to change that.

The ecology, evolution and behavior doctoral students are helping oversee a summer research and mentorship program that will help Native American students recognize their heritage in a field that doesn’t often reflect the values of their culture.

Grossman and Iyengar are working on a summer program called Our Earth Lodge, a NASA-funded project aimed at encouraging Native American undergraduates to study climate change and potentially pursue science or engineering as a profession. Applications to participate in the students’ research will close Friday.

The three accepted students will assist Grossman and Iyengar with their research in plant ecology during the program, which will be set at University-owned Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel, Minn.

The research will intersect Ojibwe traditions and experiences with biology by allowing Native American students to design their own studies.

“Science and engineering research reflects our understanding, but it’s mostly a Euro-American perspective,” said Wren Walker Robbins, vice president of the Midwest’s chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which is partnering with NASA on the project.

Walker Robbins said a lot of people don’t realize that research can lack objectivity, which can discourage Native American students from entering the field if the perspectives shared in it don’t reflect their cultures.

“When we look at research experience for undergraduates nationwide, Native Americans are underrepresented significantly,” Walker Robbins said.

Grossman and Iyengar attended camps earlier this spring at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet to inform their mentoring approach.

Neither Iyengar nor Grossman are Native American, and neither had worked with Native students before, they said.

“We want to be sensitive and not ignore Ojibwe environmental knowledge,” Grossman said.

He said students could do research on topics like how biodiversity affects decomposition or productivity in forests.

Iyengar said students will also be introduced to a broad research community.

Eric Seabloom, an ecology professor who does research at Cedar Creek, said the center is world-renowned in biology research.

“Bringing students into a setting where they’re meeting foremost researchers is really exciting,” he said.

The program also includes a three-day STEM summer camp held at Cedar Creek for K-12 Native American students.

“They’re learning about science through the tribal lens,” said Mary Spivey, Cedar Creek’s education and outreach coordinator. “It’s a whole different way of looking at the world.”