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Native chemist draws on life experiences to mentor Native students in higher education

Native chemist draws on life experiences to mentor Native students in higher education

Monday, January 23, 2017

The old adage says that those who can’t do, teach. Joslynn Lee is flipping that adage around—those who can do well, teach even better.

In addition to training scientists around the country, Lee (Chemistry, ’06) draws on her own successes as a Native STEM student to mentor others pursuing higher education in any field. “When I was an undergrad, it would have been helpful to know someone who was already out there doing cool things in the world,” she says.

Lee, who earned her doctorate at Northeastern University after graduating Fort Lewis College, is now “doing cool things” full time and then some. She is a Data Science Educator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, specializing in outreach to Native American students.

On top of that, as part of CyVerse, she also teaches bench scientists from undergraduates to faculty how to interpret their computerized data. And she’s also currently training high school teachers to analyze DNA data from bacterial microbiomes.

“I enjoy teaching others, not even just those with a science background, to think like a scientist,” Lee says. “Everyone is a scientist, in a way. Carrying on that passion to ask questions about the natural world, you discover a lot more.”

Lee is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna (K’awaika) and a member of the Pueblo of Acoma (Haaku) and Navajo Nation (Diné) tribes. Her culture and background influence her perspective on thinking like a scientist in ways many mainstream scientists don’t encounter. Her experiences have taught her that “a lot of people think Native people aren’t scientists,” she says.

For starters, science -- in the Western sense -- was a non-factor in Lee’s childhood. She recalls that her family didn’t directly see scientific careers in action, and she did not even take chemistry in high school.

It was in an organic chemistry lab at FLC that she finally discovered how she could apply chemistry to her own life.

“In the Diné or Navajo culture, you use natural dyes predominantly to dye different types of textiles, wool, or grasses,” Lee explains. “In an organic chem lab, my professor said to me, if you want to try to isolate the molecule from a natural dye, you can bring in a sample. I brought in a plant that my grandmother used as a natural dye that will give you this bright orange.”

“That sparked my enthusiasm,” she says. “I felt more included because I could bring that information. It was a great eye-opener to think about my culture in an organic chemistry perspective. This was science that I could have a conversation with my family about.”

Relating her newfound passion to her family was a challenge in itself, one Lee recognizes in other Native STEM students. “I was trying to get my family excited for this type of major that no one had really encountered fully,” she says.

One such challenge arose when Lee realized early on that she needed to seize research opportunities if she wanted to be competitive after college. She took on a summer research project, and her parents didn’t entirely understand her need to spend the whole summer away from home.

“I don’t want to speak for all reservations,” she says, “but many of them don’t have a technology infrastructure—or they didn’t ten years ago. I had to figure out how to communicate a career path in STEM when my family didn’t directly see that career type every day.”

The challenges of bridging these traditional and scientific cultures grew ever more complex as she advanced into more specialized research. She had to figure out her own path when these cultures conflicted over the types of samples she was working with.

“For my second research experience, I was working with the human cell line,” Lee says. “We were using human cells to study cancer, and that’s great, but there are some taboos on working with different types of tissues or specimens. They belong to some other person. So there are those cultural perspectives that I had to internalize and be okay with, but also be mindful of my family traditions and respect them.”

“Having to figure out how I dealt with that was tricky,” she acknowledges. “I’m not going to ignore how I was raised just to be okay with science.”

Lee appreciates how open her FLC faculty were to her cultural considerations, while also granting her the opportunity to become a top-tier chemist.

“They pushed us to do research and were very supportive,” she says. “They always checked in. They invested their time and really kept in touch.”

The passion and personal dedication from her faculty taught Lee much more than chemistry: it taught her how to teach, and how to believe in her own abilities. “They saw that I was capable of learning and doing research,” she says. “That meant a lot to me.”

And that’s the passion she has carried forward, not only into teaching other scientists, but especially into mentoring other Native students who want to pursue higher education.

“I’m pretty open with many students about my experience,” she says. “I think having that conversation and being open with it helps others to feel more comfortable.”

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