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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 23, 2003 - Issue 94


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Native Americans Study at NASA

credits: (Tom Allen -- The Washington Post) At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Ryan LaFountaine, right, explains his research project.

At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Ryan LaFountaine, right, explains his research project. (photo by Tom Allen - The Washington Post)Ismelda Lucio, 22, knew little about NASA.

She knew vaguely that it was a place that helped in space discoveries and exploration. But after spending 10 weeks at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt doing research and experiments, Lucio knew a lot more.

She recently presented her final report on how satellites are used to decide where to send rescue workers after such natural disasters as earthquakes or tornadoes.

Lucio was one of six Native Americans -- five college students and a professor -- chosen from tribal colleges in North Dakota to participate in a summer program at Goddard. The program's goal is to interest more Native Americans in science-related careers, said Wanda David, the program manager at Goddard for the Native American program.

"I didn't know much about NASA, and I just learned so much," said Lucio, who is a Hidatsa Indian and goes to Fort Berthold Community College in New Town, N.D.

There are several other programs at NASA designed for minorities, but educators, administrators and scientists wanted to see more Indians in science fields. They worked with an association that represents tribal colleges in North Dakota to hold a "NASA Awareness Day" in April 2002 to show students from elementary school through college what the center does.

"NASA has its vision to inspire the next generation," David said. "We want to include everyone. We have a very small portion of Native Americans in this area, and we're not located near a reservation. Our emphasis was to extend ourselves to tribal colleges.

"We've had to be very proactive in recruiting Natives to come here," she said. "There's a great underrepresentation of minorities in the areas of the sciences."

An estimated 150 Native Americans work at NASA's centers across the country. At NASA's Goddard Center, there are eight.

NASA's administrators said one approach they are using to encourage more Native American students to consider careers in science is to market the participation of the first Native American in a NASA space shuttle program. In November, John Bennett Herrington, who is of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, flew on a mission to the International Space Station.

"This is an excellent time to stimulate Native students in the areas of math and science," David said. To further that goal, NASA has given some tribal schools and organizations on reservations math and science materials to use.

This summer's group of Goddard interns was the second, and larger than the first. Last year, Goddard Center had a pilot program with students from Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D. In addition, five students from Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., have come for a three-week internship in earth science.

The six from North Dakota studied physical and environmental sciences, computers and mechanical engineering, among other subjects. NASA paid the rent for a College Park apartment and gave each student a $4,000 stipend. Some of the students will also get credit from their colleges.

"Their projects spanned everything from studying how medical decisions are made from afar to looking at . . . Asian dust from space," said Nancy Maynard, associate director for environment and health at Goddard who also served as a mentor to some of the students.

"We had Native students studying reindeer husbandry in Russia using satellites, and another looking at how to control West Nile virus," Maynard said.

Dereck Stonefish, 25, a sophomore at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., said he was a bit nervous just before his final presentation to his friends, mentor and teachers at NASA. His subject was the use of "indigenous knowledge to improve reindeer husbandry in Scandinavia and northwest Russia."

He said he used a map and satellites to plot migration patterns of reindeer in remote regions of Russia where the animals are the main source of income for people. "There's a lot of environmental and government issues affecting their livelihood," Stonefish said. "I looked at the vegetation of the area, and when you combine that with where plants show up as being under stress, you find that the herders can move the nomadic deer to different areas."

He concluded that herders could minimize their areas of walking and redirect the animals to better grazing areas. With satellite images, he could compare his findings with notes from herders on the ground to see if they were accurate.

Ryan LaFountaine, a 20-year-old Chippewa Indian who attends Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, N.D., tracked the West Nile virus in an area of Pennsylvania using satellites and other sensory images to measure rainfall levels and find where mosquitoes might breed. "Then you can go and spray where they are and eradicate the mosquitoes, and then control the West Nile," LaFountaine said.

"They can't spray the entire state because they don't have the resources or the manpower," he said. "This makes it more effective." He said he learned how to do research that he "had never done."

NASA organizers said they plan to keep in touch with the students and help them pursue their research back at their respective colleges.

Lucio said she wants to use some of the same tracking devices she used at NASA to help people at her reservation get better health care. For instance, she said, doctors might be able to monitor from afar how patients are doing on various medicines. The nearest hospital, she said, is 100 miles away in Minot, and often people don't get there in time for major emergencies.

"I'd really like to see how some of this technology can be used at my reservation to help people get better care," Lucio said.

Goddard Space Flight Center Map

Maps by Travel

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