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The Need to have Native American Representation in STEM Fields

Michael Ceballos

Dr. Ruben Michael Ceballos (Tepehuano-O'dami) is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota (Morris). He obtained his bachelor of science degree in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a master's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a PhD in Microbiology and Biochemistry from the University Montana. His doctoral studies were funded in part through a U.S. National Science Foundation IGERT Ecology of Infectious Disease program. He is also an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Indigenous Graduate Program (SIGP) PhD awardee, a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship awardee, and was the recipient of the NASA Astrobiology Institute MIRS award in 2006. In addition to his research in virus-host interactions and extremophile protein biochemistry for biotechnology, Dr. Ceballos has dedicated more than a decade of his professional life to serving students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sciences. In 2007, he established the Native American Research Laboratory (NARL), a unique intercultural and interdisciplinary research and learning lab dedicated to providing "hands on" research opportunities to students from underserved groups with a strong focus on serving Native American students.
When Dr. Ceballos transferred to the University of Minnesota system, his lab moved with him and it continues to serve as a resource for students. Dr. Ceballos collaborates both domestically and internationally on a host of research projects and provides students with opportunities for international experiences through programs such as the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. He has conducted research alongside his students in Norway, Mexico, India, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Malaysia. With over 15 years of teaching and mentoring experience in high schools, community/technical colleges, the tribal college system, as well as small and large university systems, Dr. Ceballos continues to balance his personal research interests with serving the next generation of scientists by providing them with the opportunities that will contribute to increased recruitment and retention of minority students into the sciences.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your Native American heritage?

Ceballos: My paternal family is Indigenous American (Tepehuano-Odami) and my maternal family is Caucasian. My paternal grandfather was a railroad worker for the Santa Fe. The family moved with the railroad and we did not grow up on a reservation. My father was in the military (U.S. Army) and later worked for the USMC as a civil servant at Camp Pendleton. Thus, I grew up in southern California. Although my great-grandparents spoke indigenous languages, my grandparents typically used English and some Spanish and encouraged their children (my father, aunts, and uncles) only to use English due to real and perceived prejudices of their era. I have acquired a working vocabulary of our traditional language but am not a fluent speaker. There were two perspectives within the family regarding our Native heritage. On the one side, my grandfather was more open and talked to me extensively about the family history and where our forefathers originated. My grandmother on the other hand, often scolded him for telling us these stories, insisting that people would "look down on us" if we talked about our heritage and that we should just simply say that we are "Americans" - and leave it at that. Later in life, I learned that she (and her family) experienced several discriminatory events that certainly may have shaped her attitude about race and ethnicity.

As I grew older and times changed with more diversity initiatives, it was easier to explore our family history and our Native heritage. Unfortunately, I have found that intertribal biases can be equally or even more challenging than interracial biases. With a myriad of federal laws, tribal laws, and historical events that have changed the face of Native America, identity and finding a balance between traditional culture and the modern world is always challenging.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in microbiology/biochemistry, yet alone in academia?

Ceballos: My paternal grandfather, Catarino, was my greatest inspiration with regard to higher education. He left school at the age of 12 to work so that his younger sisters could have the required uniforms to attend parochial schools, which were the only school available to them at the time. Although he did this without hesitation, he always had an affinity for scholarship - why I do not know. However, when he retired from the railroad, my cousins and I were surprised to find out that he had enrolled himself at Palomar College in Oceanside, California to fulfill his dream of attaining a formal education. When I was a teenager, he told me that I would go to a university and that there would be people there who would tell me that I do not belong there, that they would pressure me to leave, and try to push me out. I think he was living a bit in the past but his point was well stated: "No matter what they say to you, you do belong there. Learn as much as you can and never be discouraged by others." Later, after finishing my bachelor's degree in Physics, my grandfather encouraged me to enter a graduate program. I suppose it seemed that if he felt that higher education was important enough for him to study after retiring (instead of relaxing after working for 30-plus years), then intellectual development must be something special. So, I continued on. Interestingly, along the path to the Ph.D., I did in fact run into people who looked down on my or thought that I could not succeed. I was naive and thought that racism always wore a white pointed hat and marched around town with flaming crosses. It turns out that it is the more subtle micro-agressions that are the most damaging because you do not always see them until it is too late. At the same time, I also found some very supportive mentors and role models that helped me along the way when I was at the verge of giving up.

Even more surprising, I find that these subtle, maybe even subconscious, prejudices thrive in the professional world. As is likely the case with many doctorally-prepared minority faculty, I have experienced a lot of micro-agression in the workplace, within the very university system that I am dedicated to serving. It is quite sad. I often wonder if certain people purposefully plan the things that they do to hinder the success of minority faculty or if it is just something inherent and subconscious that drives them to do some of the things that they do. Whatever the case, I just keep moving forward.

Q: If you aggregate the various indigenous nations, do you have a sense of what the numbers are for Native American representation in the life sciences, and are these numbers problematic?

Ceballos: At one time I could count the number of Native American Ph.D. in biochemistry on one hand and name them by name. But over the past 10 years, things have started to change. Although there are more minorities receiving masters degrees and doctorates in the natural sciences, the numbers are still painfully low within the Native community. African-Americans and Hispanics are doing better but, frankly, all of our communities of color need more culturally relevant faculty role models in the sciences at major universities, government agencies, and private companies. The United States of America is at its core a multicultural nation bound together by nothing else than the U.S. Constitution and the promises and dreams that the Constitution bestows upon the citizens of this great country. When there are grave disparities in position, power, and wealth between one subgroup of our population and all the others, there will be problems. This goes for all sectors of our society including academia and within that the life sciences. If food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education are fundamental to "... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (Declaration of Independence), then at all levels we need proportional representation. Although not as rapidly as one might like, I think we are getting there - slowly but surely.

Q: In your opinion, what are the top 2 reasons why Native Americans are not more prominently represented in STEM careers?

Ceballos: You know, the word "Native American" in itself is a tough label to use. It encompasses highly diverse sets of communities from across the continent, each with its own history, its own problems, its own accomplishments, and its own goals for the future. So, I am not sure if I can generalize to say what the top two reasons are for low representation of Native Americans in STEM. However, I can tell you what I have experienced. First, there are social, economic, and internal community challenges to achieving advanced degrees and thus careers in STEM. As a Native person, you are often asked to leave your home community to enter a "foreign" world of learning knowing that you may be resented when you come back home after achieving some level of education through mainstream academia. Then, if you decide to do it anyway, once you get into a major university system, achieve that STEM degree, choices can be limited to competing for jobs in a professional world that sometimes does not embrace you or, even worse, considers you a novelty rather than a professional. For me, it was not so bad because I did not grow up in a reservation community but I have seen many of my students struggle with these issues. It's heartbreaking at times. You see a young Native man or woman take the leap of faith - that higher education and intellectual development will provide them with opportunities for a better life - and then you see how people back home treat them. So, they leave home and try to work in the "mainstream" world and they are picked apart there too. I think the general problem is that we try to convince ourselves that we are a nation of racial, ethnic, and cultural "tolerance" and sometime even lie to ourselves and say that as a nation we embrace diversity but when it comes right down to it, that is simply not true - not yet at least. And, it cuts in many directions. But, again, there is always hope.

Q: What do you think we can do as a society to improve Native American representation in STEM careers?

Ceballos: Simple. How about hiring well-prepared Native Americans into tenured STEM positions and administration at major universities? How about spending fewer tax-payer dollars on military interventions overseas and supporting the efforts of highly-motivated Native scholars - and not just Natives. I saw a great bumper sticker once, it said: Why does there always seem to be enough money for war but never enough money for education? Really, that's all that needs to be said. Facilitate new jobs in STEM within academia, the government, and private sectors and fill those positions with people who are from groups that have been historically underrepresented in STEM.

Q: You are credited as the founder of what used to be known as the Native American Research Lab. Can you briefly explain the motivation behind launching such a lab and identify, perhaps, what you were most proud of in terms of its accomplishments?

Ceballos: I established the Native American Research Lab (NARL) in 2007 with the approval of university administration and funded it almost entirely with extramural funding - in other words, through grants that I wrote or helped to write. At the time, there were many "programs" to help Native American students in STEM but there was not a real "physical space" - like a lab - where students could feel comfortable. Instead of being the one minority student in a lab with a bunch of other undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs, I envisioned and racially and culturally diverse "hands-on" learning environment where there were more brown faces so that our Native students would not feel intimidated or inadequate but instead would thrive. Just setting up and funding the lab was an accomplishment. Most people do not understand the administrative and political battles that I had to deal with just to get the lab up and running. Most people do not know the number of hours I had to put in to keep the lab running. I suppose the numbers speak volumes. Under my direction, the lab served more than 80 students of whom more than 75% were Native American representing more than 30 tribes from across the continent. I am very proud of the fact that I did not cave-in to calls from within the Native community to make the lab exclusively for Native students. The vision was not exclusion but cross-cultural collaboration in a culturally comfortable environment. I insisted on allowing Caucasian students, African American students, Hispanic students, and international students to take advantage of the learning environment that was created. The idea was to have multiple NARLs across the country. While the original lab did not survive after I transferred institutions, NARL is still in operation and similar labs are sprouting up across the country under different names. I have former students who are now masters and doctoral students across the country, even one at Stanford University. I have former students who are employed within academia and in government jobs in STEM. So, in the end, I hope that the effort contributed a significant piece to the broader effort of increasing the number of students from historically underrepresented groups into STEM.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)