Imagine building a house from scratch. How would you know where to start or how many supplies you would need? How would you tell where to put things like doors or windows? Architects and builders use blueprints to help them design and construct houses everyday. The blueprints provide detailed instructions that tell about the size and shape of each room and measurements for how large the house will be.
Our body is like a house and inside our cells are the blueprints for what our body should look like and how our body should work and grow. These blueprints are called DNA. Like a set of blueprints, DNA provides instructions to the cells about how to work. For example, the DNA in an eye cell tells that cell how to help you see and even what color your eyes are. The area of science called genomics studies all of the different instructions DNA provides the body to understand how they work together to create the complicated machine that our bodies are. And if genomics studies a cell’s blueprints, the area of science called bioinformatics creates the tools that help scientists think about those instructions. By studying genomics and bioinformatics, scientists can further understand what makes us sick, how we can get better, and how we are connected to all of the other living beings that have DNA. Currently, I am the Director of Minority Training in Bioinformatics and Genomics at Harvard University. My work is to get more people from our Latino and Native American communities involved with this important scientific research.
I grew up Naschitti, New Mexico with my six brothers and sisters. Naschitti is small, close-knit community within the Navajo Nation. This is where I first became interested in science and where I still keep connections that remind me of who I am and where I’ve come from. On one of my visits to Naschitti, my uncle asked me to explain bioinformatics and genomics to him in the Navajo language. It was hard to translate all of the scientific language, but I managed to explain that by using genomics and bioinformatics, scientists have discovered that all living things are connected and everything on this planet is more similar than different. My uncle was silent for a few minutes but then he said, “Oh! That’s good to know—it sounds like they’ve finally caught up with us!” You see, in most native traditions, we believe that we are one with nature and that the Creator has created everything so that we are all connected. It was really interesting to hear him say that and it made me laugh because while I wondering how to explain genomics in a way to him that he would understand, he understood it right away.
My personal connection to science started when I was very young. I remember helping my mother gather wool from our goats and sheep that she would later weave into rugs. As I helped her wash and card the wool, I watched her use local plants to dye the wool into beautiful colors. She never used regular bleach if she wanted the wool to be brighter. Instead, she would use the sun, sand, and various minerals from the land to naturally lighten the color of the wool. When we needed more plants or minerals for dye making, she would take me with her and point out which plants were used for specific colors and also many of the other ways plants can be used for medicine and food.
Besides teaching me about the land and Navajo traditions, my mother made sure that my siblings and I went to school. I loved learning and I especially loved science. When I started high school, I became more and more interested in science, and I attended summer programs in engineering and various other fields. After high school, I attended New Mexico State University where I majored in industrial engineering. I enjoyed my major! I also couldn’t see how I could use it to help people in the future. I talked to my advisor who to told me that I should pursue a career that would be personally fulfilling. I decided that I wanted to become an academic or financial aid advisor and work with minority students—specifically Native American students. I left New Mexico State University and graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in Child Development and Family Relations. Afterwards, I attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education and recently completed my Ed.D. at the University of Pennsylvania where I did research on what makes Native American men successful students at Harvard University.
If I were an undergraduate student again, I would certainly study bioinformatics, but I know that it is not for everyone. It is important to study what interests you. Whether it is art or geology, you’ll find a way to find to make a contribution to your community. In the end, how you use your education is the most important thing.