A Home Away From Home | June 29, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 26 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 26 | Web Exclusive
Issue Date: June 29, 2009

Cover Stories: Long Journey

A Home Away From Home

Native American Research Labs give students research experience in a setting that feels like home
Department: Education
Keywords: Education, Native Americans, Reservations, Tribal Colleges
Ceballos (left) works with Morales in one of the Native American Research Labs.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Ceballos (left) works with Morales in one of the Native American Research Labs.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

Native American biochemist R. Michael Ceballos was full of optimism when he joined the faculty at Salish Kootenai College on Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation in 2004. With a vision of increasing the opportunities for Native American students to participate in research and, he hopes, pursue advanced degrees, Ceballos set out to revamp the school's science curriculum to be as rigorous as those of major universities.

He made significant progress, even setting up the first molecular biology and biochemistry research lab at any tribal college. But he often felt at odds with some of his colleagues, who thought that hard-science courses diverged from the tribal college's main educational mission of preserving language, culture, and history.

Frustrated, Ceballos moved to the University of Montana, Missoula, in 2007 and joined the biological sciences faculty as a research assistant professor. That same year, he established the Native American Research Laboratories to increase the opportunities for Native American undergraduate and graduate students to participate in scientific research. Undergraduate students work with a faculty mentor to carry out a research project and receive stipends of $500 to $5,000 per semester. Graduate students receive an annual stipend of $14,000 to $42,000. They conduct some of their research in the labs and also serve as mentors for the undergraduates.

The labs provide a space where Native American students can work on their research alongside other Native American students. Ceballos hopes the environment will counteract the isolation that Native American students experience at mainstream universities and that leads to a high rate of attrition. Students who are not Native American can also join the Native American Research Labs. The goal is to create a cross-tribal and cross-cultural research environment, Ceballos says.

Since the program began in 2007, the labs have provided research opportunities for more than 55 students. More than two-thirds are Native Americans from more than 20 different tribes around the U.S. The labs also have attracted five former tribal college instructors, four as graduate students and one as a postdoc.

With a rugged outdoorsy appearance and warm friendly eyes, Ceballos is as much a big brother to his students as a professor. He reminds students to turn in their applications for various grants, and he uses his connections to place students in summer research programs at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration and other research institutions.

He's been known to doggedly pursue Native American students on campus to recruit them to the Native American Research Labs. That's how junior Chelsea Morales, a human biology major, joined. Ceballos called her at least three times to tell her about the work in the labs, she says. These days, applications to the program are pouring in as word has gotten around within the Native American community, Ceballos says.

Students say that the labs have changed their lives.

Casey Ryan, who belongs to the Salish tribe, was leaning toward attending Salish Kootenai College and was working at a Target store when he heard about Ceballos' program through a friend who had joined the labs. After meeting Ceballos, Ryan decided to apply to the University of Montana instead. "The ultimate reason that I did not choose to go to Salish Kootenai was opportunity," he says. "They do not offer a master's degree, and they do not offer a significant amount of classes in the fields that I'm very interested in."

Now a junior pursuing a degree in geography and geosciences at the University of Montana, Ryan works in the Native American Research Labs, studying viruses that infect Archaea isolated from different geothermal regions from around the world. He plans to pursue a master's degree in a science-related field.

Ryan isn't alone in responding to Ceballos' efforts at the University of Montana. J. B. Alexander (Sandy) Ross, a chemistry professor there, says he's seen an increase in the number of Native American science students enrolling at the university since Ceballos started.

In just the past two years, Ceballos has been awarded six grants, ranging from $20,000 to $750,000, mainly from NASA and the National Science Foundation. He's working on several more.

Ceballos hopes to add more labs to the two he already has. The larger one, which is used for microbiology and molecular biology, can accommodate up to six students at a time. The smaller lab, used for proteomics work, can accommodate up to four students. Ceballos and his students will occupy part of the top floor of the university's new Interdisciplinary Science Building once construction is completed. He would like to see other Native American Research Labs start up at other major universities around the country.

Meanwhile, Ceballos remains supportive of tribal colleges. "There is nothing wrong with having an education system that's meant to serve the tribe," he says. "But at the same time, we must make sure that we don't pigeonhole Native American students who want something different. Our goal is not to tell students what to do or to limit what majors they can pursue, but to provide them with a spectrum of opportunities and let them find their own path."

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