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Indigenous women find their stride in physics
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Indigenous women find their stride in physics

Looking at the starry sky in Red Mesa, Arizona, a younger Elaina Saltclah wondered about the universe's secrets and if she’d ever get to unveil some of them.

“What made me interested in physics is simple curiosity into something ordinary, like the stars or gravity,” said Saltclah, a member of the Diné Tribe, a mother, and a Fort Lewis College student majoring in physics with a minor in mathematics. “That fundamental curiosity about why things are the way they are is what drove me to the field.”

After introducing herself in her native Diné language, including the names of her clans, the young mother spoke confidently about her participation in a unique physics education partnership between Fort Lewis College and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Now in its third year, “Engaging Indigenous Women in Nuclear Physics” started as a pilot program to bring undergraduate Indigenous women into physics. The program, which began with two FLC students in 2021, has blossomed into a steady source of physics education and opportunities for FLC students, with Los Alamos National Laboratory partnering to provide mentorship and research with cutting-edge experiments. This year, four students are enrolled.

“Indigenous women are the minority of the minority when it comes to physics,” said Cesar Luis da Silva, principal investigator for the project and a particle physicist at Los Alamos Laboratory. “Giving women the chance to connect with science is important to me. This program aims to show that nuclear physics is something they can pursue and be a part of.”

Exploring the universe’s mysteries

Saltclah’s internship with the Los Alamos Laboratory includes ongoing mentorship from the Physics Division researchers at Los Alamos, and a research project focused on the nature of quark-gluon plasma, which formed the universe in its first microseconds after the Big Bang.

The internship also includes professional development opportunities, such as giving a talk at a recent conference of the American Physical Society, a leading physics association. In the summer of 2023, she traveled to Brookhaven National Laboratory to check a detector system that provides data she’s using in her research project.

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Saltclah plans to continue her journey toward a career as a physicist with graduate education.

“Before this experience, I thought my dream of becoming a physicist was a pipe dream,” said Saltclah. “But this has helped build my confidence. I see this program leading to a better future for me and my son.”

Reaching for the sky

Fort Lewis physics major and Diné tribe member Victoria Nofchissey loved Albert Einstein and, as a teenager, gravitated toward physics textbooks.

Growing up in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, Nofchissey said they always had a passion for physics but weren’t sure they could pursue a career in science.

“I didn’t even know I could go to college,” Nofchissey said, who connected with the program through Laurie Williams, professor of physics and engineering at FLC.

In the summer of 2023 Nofchissey traveled with Los Alamos physicists to the Center for European Research (CERN) in Switzerland, one of the world’s premier physics laboratories and the home of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator.

At CERN, Nofchissey met physicists from all over the world and took a shift managing data from the Large Hadron Collider “beauty” experiment that seeks to understand the differences between matter and antimatter. That experience inspired her to research the hypothetical particles known as glueballs, which she hopes to do in a laboratory like CERN.

“I definitely feel more heard as a person as a result of this program,” said Nofchissey. “It’s really important to have Indigenous representation in STEM. I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and as I go on in my education and career, I’d like to inspire them.”

The other FLC students in the program are Jade Martinez and Gwendolyn Tsosie. Martinez uses artificial intelligence to find isolated photons produced in heavy ion collisions. Tsosie is contributing to the mechanical design of the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment detector.

Building on success

The two inaugural participants in the program, Arielle Platero and Julie Nelson (now Julie Napora), also received mentorship, an internship, and the chance to do research at CERN.

Platero finished her bachelor’s degree and is now in a graduate mechanical engineering program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Napora, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, finished her bachelor’s degree in May 2023 and is now an employee at the Laboratory, working as a post-baccalaureate researcher in the Nuclear and Particle Physics group in the Physics division. FLC alumna Julie Napora (Nelson) (Physics’23), participated in the pilot program of Engaging Indigenous Women in Nuclear Physics. She is now an a post-baccalaureate researcher in the Nuclear and Particle Physics group in the Physics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“I grew up in a small town, and I didn’t know any physicists,” said Napora, who was born in Shiprock and grew up in Farmington, New Mexico. “I didn’t think I had a place in this field or that there was room for someone like me. When I received this internship, I put a lot of heart and everything I had into it because the success of this program meant that other Indigenous women would get this opportunity. This program has been the most influential thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

As a Los Alamos researcher now, Napora is studying how quarks and gluons —subatomic particles known as building blocks for larger protons and neutrons— behave and interact to form visible matter. She recently had a paper accepted for publication at a leading peer-reviewed journal and plans to continue to build her career in physics at the Laboratory or an institution like CERN.

Growing partnerships

This fall, da Silva partnered with Abraham Meles, associate professor at Navajo Technical University, to offer a similar physics pipeline opportunity at the tribal university. The “Bringing Experimental High-energy Nuclear Physics to Navajo Nation” program seeks to promote careers in physics through mentorship and experimental opportunities and also train students to deal with contamination from abandoned uranium mines in Navajo country.

The Laboratory will help outfit Navajo Tech lab spaces with radiation detectors for physics experiments and create a detector assembly lab for a particle tracker to be installed at a CERN experiment. Navajo Tech students will travel to CERN to participate in the research as the first Indigenous college to participate in a significant, international, high-energy physics collaboration.

For da Silva, the benefit of this kind of partnership is anything but one-way.

“Often when we talk about science, we have a narrow view,” he said. “The students in these programs may have a different view of the universe, which can enlarge our science perspective and impact the kind of questions we pursue and how we think about the answers.”

The Fort Lewis College program is supported by the Department of Energy Office of Science Nuclear Physics program. The Navajo Technical University partnership is funded by the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Funding for Accelerated, Inclusive Research program.

LA-UR-24-21224

This article was adapted from its original written by Brian Keenan and published by Los Alamos Laboratory.

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