Where is my place as an aspiring Native American STEM advocate?

It was 8 a.m. in the patient waiting room at the Northern Navajo Medical Center when I saw a worn-out poster listing prenatal health statistics from the Navajo Nation. I didn’t know how long it had been there, but I noticed a familiar blue dome: the dome of my current Ph.D. Institution, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I had not known about any connection between Johns Hopkins and the Navajo Nation, and as a tribally enrolled member of the Diné/Navajo Nation and a 2nd-year Ph.D. candidate, I was astonished by my lack of awareness. Was this poster here last year when I got my flu shot? Had it been here since I was a child? This moment inspired something within me — I knew I wanted to become a STEM advocate and science communicator, but I didn’t know where or how to begin.

Photo by Natalie’s wife, Dominique Wilson.

As a first-generation college and Ph.D. student, each step forward has been a new experience for me and for my family. When my wife and I moved two-thousand miles away from home to Baltimore, I initially felt homesick being surrounded by unfamiliar sights. We’ve since happily adjusted to small city life, but I’m still surprised by how often my ethnicity has come up in conversation.

Questions arise from classmates or even from a stranger in an ice cream shop asking, “What are you?” More often than not, I am willing to explain that I am Navajo, I do not wear a feather in my hair, I do not practice my tradition, and I know more Spanish words than I do Navajo words. Yet, it has been instilled in me to discuss brief histories of The Long Walk, boarding schools and the assimilation of the Navajo people. During these teachable moments I am excited to share, saddened that I don’t know my own language, and often left feeling like an anomaly — though I always knew there must be other scientists just like me.

I knew this because I had attended two SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) conferences as an undergraduate student, where I had seen the richness of the STEM community. I knew if I made an effort, I could find the Native American community at Hopkins.

I knew I wanted to become a STEM advocate and science communicator, but I didn’t know where or how to begin.

After seeing the familiar logo at my hospital visit, I fervently typed in the words “Navajo AND Johns Hopkins” into the Google search bar and uncovered the Center for American Indian Health (CAIH). The exuberant CAIH staff invited me to their on-campus group meetings after a few emails and quickly made me feel like part of their community. One meeting, I learned about a sports camp they led every year in Shiprock, NM, which intertwined life skills with sports training. When I was offered a chance to go back home and lead a workshop in the 2018 NativeVision Camp, I jumped at the opportunity and commenced researching STEM outreach activities. I attempted to make learning objectives, tried to design my ideal workshop, and spent hours researching outreach ideas. I became overwhelmed by the task in the midst of laboratory work, fellowship applications, blog posts, and course work.

I sought guidance from mentors who suggested I solidify a workshop for the next year when my schedule would clear up. Moreover, they encouraged me to put my passion into my research. I reluctantly refused the offer to go to NativeVision, and with less stress, I moved into a productive summer in the lab. Through my mentors’ guidance, I realized that being a Ph.D. student meant my priority must be my research, and I would be measured by publications. If I were to spend my five years in outreach efforts and not investing the same time in the lab, then I would be missing the point of a Ph.D.

Yet, even with my feet firmly planted in my laboratory, the advocacy bug kept manifesting itself in my Google searches or during my lunches with colleagues. One afternoon, I called the editor of the Navajo Times to inquire about starting a science section in the newspaper. He told me to send in a draft. The rest of the afternoon, I tried to find articles that pertained to both science and Navajo life in order to make a great pitch. All of sudden it was 6 p.m. and I needed to do go down to treat my animals. I also didn’t get around to planning my in vitro experiments that day. Again, I knew being a staff writer for a newspaper was a job all its own. I decided to move on and fill my days with my thesis work.

Even with my feet firmly planted in my laboratory, the advocacy bug kept manifesting itself.

By the next morning I was calling my uncle, a retired high school counselor, who worked on the reservation to discuss the needs of Navajo students. We agreed on how critical mentorship is for Native American students, and I created a plan to contact schools to make a pipeline for students to be mentored by Hopkins graduate students. I utilized my network, but after a few days, I found a flaw: this plan lacked personal contact; mentees would need the mentors to be near them. Also, AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) already had an established network for mentoring and fostering the next generation of American Indian STEM leaders. There were already individuals whose jobs were fully dedicated to this cause, and I still can’t wait to be one of them.

I have seen the need for more Native American STEM advocates and I want to answer the call. Each day I struggle with my passion for giving back to my home community and what it means to be a “good” Ph.D. student. As a student, my research remains a priority above advocacy because I am still learning to think like a self-sufficient scientist. I am developing the problem-solving competency needed to run my own laboratory and train the next generation of Native American scientists. Therefore, I wake up excited to continue my three in vivo experiments, run gels, and read background articles to prepare for the moment when I am ready to dedicate all my time to STEM diversity efforts.

I have seen the need for more Native American STEM advocates and I want to answer the call.

I know I will have a better chance at finding my place in science advocacy with a Ph.D. under my belt and a professorship near the Navajo Nation. Until then, I will make any impact I can as a graduate student. I am currently the treasurer for the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine SACNAS co-chapter, a Thread volunteer, a Biomedical Odyssey blogger, a member of the Hopkins Teaching Academy certification program, a member of the CAIH Native Circle, a co-planner for my Ph.D. program’s lunch seminars — and an aspiring advocate.

You can find Natalie Joe on Twitter (@NatalieJ_JHUSOM), Instagram (@nsjoe88), and Facebook.

Natalie Joe
Natalie Joe

Natalie Joe is a tribally enrolled member of the Diné/Navajo Nation who grew up on the Navajo Reservation and she’s proud to be a first-generation college and graduate student. She is a committed volunteer, curious scientist, science communicator, and underrepresented minority advocate. In 2016, she graduated from Fort Lewis College with a dual degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology and in Biochemistry. Currently, she is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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