'A single opportunity'

SACNAS deputy director hopes to get more Natives into science

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 31, 2013

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(Courtesy photo)

David R. Wilson currently serves as the deputy director for SACNAS, a society dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. (Courtesy photo)

While traveling to national conferences to present his research findings from the science lab at the National Institute of Aging, David R. Wilson saw the huge discrepancy in the number of Native American students represented in his field -- slim to none.

He also understood this from first-hand experience of attaining a Doctor of Philosophy and Bachelor's of Science degree, both in cellular and molecular biology from Arizona State University.

"There was definitely that feeling (of being) alone," said Wilson, who currently serves as the deputy director for SACNAS, a society dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

"A lot of the times there were issues of dealing with the impostor syndrome," the 41-year-old from Manuelito, N.M. added.

Those reasons among many were why Wilson, upon a three-year postdoctoral research stint with the National Institutes of Health in the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore, made the decision to switch from a lab, or "bench," scientist to a science administrator.

Instead of experiencing all the individual accomplishments he would discover as a lab scientist, Wilson thought about having a larger impact in the world of science by getting more students from Indian Country involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields through recruitment and retention.

"What I wanted to do was get more people from our communities that look like me to have these same opportunities to experience all the great science," Wilson said.

He tasted some of the fruits of this labor when he was given flexibility as a senior research scientist at the NIH to develop an outreach program. There, he recruited Navajo students from New Mexico, who he said have since gone into successful science careers.

As a result of recruiting those Navajo scientists to the NIH, SACNAS noticed Wilson and asked for his service. Since 2011, he, along with Yvonne Rodriguez, have led the organization, while also still contributing to immunology and the physics fields, respectively.

Wilson's path as a science administrator began with an "aha!" moment chasing butterflies, when he conducted summer research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colo., as an undergraduate.

During that time of his life, Wilson said researchers didn't understand why the Silver Blue Butterfly laid its eggs on a plant that livestock can't digest very well. From his research, he discovered that the butterfly and plant "coexist to survive" because the plant produces a chemical toxin that protects the eggs of the butterfly.

"That is what really got me interested in how Mother Earth works," he said.

Now as the deputy director for SACNAS, it is Wilson's mission to get students from his community interested in how science works.

"A lot of them don't know the opportunities that are out there for them," Wilson said. "There is always this information of isolation -- they can do it."

Since serving as the deputy director for three years now, Wilson has seen a "four-fold" increase in the number of students attending the annual national SACNAS conference.

Three of those students are Wei Allen, a graduate student in geology at Purdue University, Ray Joe, a cellular and molecular doctoral student at the University of Michigan, and Ranalda Tsosie, a doctoral student in chemistry at the University of Montana.

Earlier last month, the trio of rising scientists attended the annual SACNAS conference in San Antonio, held Oct. 3-6. They told the Navajo Times of their experience with SACNAS and their fields of study.

Allen, originally from Piñon, Ariz., compared SACNAS to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and said, "Its not like AISES, where it's based on the Native perspective."

She especially enjoyed the sessions with Stanley Atcitty and Monica Yellowhair telling their stories of becoming scientists in the "Native American Researchers: From the Rez to World-Class Research" panel because it showed her different disciplines people from her community are currently studying.

Upon graduation from Purdue University, Allen plans to look into how energy corporations interact with tribes.

"Tribes don't really have capacity to develop their natural resources, whether it's coal, oil, phosphate salt, or uranium," she said.

Joe, of Waterflow, N.M., added that by attending SACNAS he met other Navajo professionals in science and also learned about their research topics.

"We're a growing population in the field of science," said Joe, who is investigating "the cellular mechanisms of neuronal isoforms of the obesity-associated human gene, SH2BI."

As for Tsosie, she merely enjoys the aura and support of SACNAS.

"I like the motivation that I get and the positive aura around," said the Sweetwater, Ariz. native, who also happens to be raising five children while studying graduate-level chemistry. "If I've done it, you can do it, anybody can do it."

Much like how these students from the Navajo Reservation have persevered, Wilson hopes to recruit and encourage more and more students like them to consider a future in science.

"Our numbers are so low that we are waiting for the fruits of our labors to be expressed in a report," Wilson said, explaining that it takes about seven years from an undergraduate degree to post-doc status. "In seven years, we hope to see some results."

He also added that it's important for federal agencies and academic institutions to realize the hidden talents found on tribal reservations.

"The students are so gifted and talented that many of them need a single opportunity and mentoring to help them achieve anything they want to be," he said.

Wilson is Honaghahanii (One Who Walks Around Clan) and born for Todichiinii (Bitter Water People Clan).

Information: sacnas.org or contact David Wilson via email at dave@sacnas.org.

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1139 or email at abitsoi@navajotimes.com.

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