Diné student gains fame for research

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi Bureau

SCHINLE, Jan. 26, 2012

(Courtesy photo)

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center intern and Salish Kootenai College student Cody Sifford, Diné, won first place in the Science Division poster competition.

Some say the world will end in fire, some in ice.

Then there are those, including a Navajo undergrad at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., who think fire and ice make darn good research subjects.

And Cody Sifford is not alone. He's been invited to conferences all over the country to present his work.

Not bad for a kid from "Podunk, Montana," as Sifford likes to say. (Actually, Huntley, Mont., population 411.)

For the 23-year-old junior in environmental science, who is Bitterwater born for bilagáana, the launch pad was two consecutive summer internships at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The first year, Sifford developed a way to use data from global imaging systems to monitor fluctuations in snow and ice fields.

That garnered him a lecture tour on the climate change circuit, and he was also able to parlay his newfound knowledge of GIS into a contract position mapping cultural archeology sites for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon.

"I work out of my home and on my own time, so it's ideal for a college student," Sifford said.

Plus, at $30 an hour, it's a heck of a lot more lucrative than flipping burgers.

This past summer, Sifford's research took him in a different direction. He used data from the state of Florida - history, soil moisture, etc. - to develop a statistical model to assess the risk of wildfire in a particular area.

It's still in the early stages - "one of my mentors just contacted me and was saying it could develop into a funded research project," Sifford said - but eventually it could be used by fire departments, public health agencies and the like.

Sifford won a $1,000 first prize from NASA for that project, beating out interns from Stanford, MIT and Yale.

Sifford said he wanted to share his story with the Times so that people will realize you don't have to be from a wealthy, highly educated family in a big city to pursue a career in science.

"My mom (Victoria Whitewater) is from Piñon (Ariz.)," he said. "My dad (Rick Sifford) is from Oklahoma. I grew up in Montana and I'm going to a tribal college. You just have to take these opportunities when they come up and show you're interested, and if you impress someone it can lead to all kinds of things."

This coming summer, for example, Sifford has a variety of options. NASA wants him back for a third internship, but he's also been offered a job in Reno by one of his former mentors who has gone into business with GIS applications.

Or, he might stay in Montana in order not to lose the rental house he managed to find on the shores of Flathead Lake.

"A fox went through my yard just now," Sifford said as he was speaking to a reporter by telephone. "It's really hard to leave Montana and spend the summer somewhere hot and humid like Alabama."

Eventually, Sifford wants to get a doctorate, perhaps in wildlife biology, and maybe become a college professor so he can inspire the next generation of bright young minds the way he has been inspired.

"It's really my professors and mentors who pointed me in the right direction and helped me come up with my research topics," he said. "They help out a lot."