|You are on the planet Sultron, five hundred light years away from Earth. The sky is hazy green, the ground pink, and the air smells strangely like bananas. Multicolored plants sway around you in the breeze. Checking your environmental data recorder, you note that there actually is no breeze and that the plants are moving on their own! Suddenly a slimy tentacle unfolds from a leaf and reaches for you. Your heart pounding, you realize that this “plant” is really a giant space creature….
You don’t have to be in outer space to see strange creatures. Can you believe that right here on Earth there are some animals that look like plants? When I was in graduate school at the University of Washington I studied animals called bryozoans, which are often called “moss animals” because they look a lot like seaweed and plants. In fact, bryozoans are ancient animals that form an important part of the fossil record, which is used to explain the history of the earth.
Bryozoans are also unusual because they are actually made up of tiny individuals called zooids that work together to create the organism. Bryozoans are also invertebrates; animals without backbones, like worms and jellyfish. They can grow on the bottoms of ships, on piers, and in rivers, lakes, and oceans and one even produces a chemical compound that is being used in cancer research.
Like a bryozoan, sometimes people don’t know what to make of me. As a Native American woman in the sciences, I definitely stand out. When some of my fellow students at the University of California, Santa Cruz saw that I looked different from them, they wanted to know if I could speak English! When I told them I was Navajo they started to have a lot of fantasies about what it is like to be Native American. It is hard to have people constantly make up ideas about who they think you are.
My parents prepared me to face the challenges of college by encouraging me to be strong in my identity and to celebrate both my Mexican and Navajo heritage. My parents also taught me that getting an education and helping your community are very important. My mom is a home-school teacher and my dad works for Los Alamos National Labs. Both of them spent a lot of time volunteering and helping their family and neighbors. Because of their influence, I know that I want to help other women and minorities go to college and study science.
I was born in 1968 and grew up in Española, New Mexico, a town filled with Pueblo Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos. Even though Española is a diverse town, Native Americans were always treated a little differently. We weren’t expected to do as much because we were Indian, and as a result, many Indians in the area didn’t finish school.
Without realizing it, I began to see myself the way others saw me. When my mother saw that I was probably going to stay home after high school, she encouraged me to attend Northern New Mexico Community College. Eventually I moved on to UCSC where I received my B.S. in Marine Biology, and then to the University of Washington where I earned my Ph.D. in Zoology.
I am currently at the University of Arizona in the entomology department where I am studying another invertebrate called the pink bollworm, a pest of cotton crops.
Although there are still days when people look at me like I am from a different planet because I am a Native American woman scientist, I am confident and proud of who I am! I encourage you to be strong and proud of your identity too.