Anela Akiona and Sarah Aarons

Celebrating Native American Excellence at Scripps

Researchers describe the importance of Indigenous representation in science
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With November marking the start of Native American Heritage Month, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is honoring the contributions of Native American faculty, researchers, staff, and students.

The first effort to establish a day to honor Native Americans was in 1915, when Red Fox James, a Native American presumed to be from the Blackfoot Tribe of Montana, rode on horseback to get endorsements from 24 different state governments to present at the White House. Although there were certain states with days that celebrated Native American heritage, no national proclamation was made until 75 years later in 1990. This year marks the 30th anniversary since President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution to designate every November National Native American Heritage Month.

UC San Diego sits on the ancestral land of the Kumeyaay tribe. With the establishment of the Intertribal Resource Center (ITRC) in 2016, the university is committed to increasing the Native American presence on campus, supporting Native American students and honoring local tribal communities. Last year, the Kumeyaay Community Garden was unveiled as a resource for the UC San Diego community to learn more about native plants and their uses and for the Kumeyaay community to contribute its knowledge.

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, the ITRC is hosting a series of free virtual events throughout November. More information about these events can be found here.

Here, two members of the Native American community at Scripps discuss their heritage and the importance of representation in their work and careers.
 

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Portrait of a smiling woman with short brown hair, a beach is visible in the background
Scripps Assistant Professor Sarah Aarons.

SARAH AARONS, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR

What is your role at Scripps?

I am an assistant professor in the Geosciences Research Division at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and I've been here since 2019. I use the chemical composition of natural materials like dust, sediment, and rocks in an effort to understand and reconstruct the evolution of Earth’s surface through time. I love working at the intersection of geochemistry and Earth surface processes because it allows me to travel to remote locations for field work and combine my interests of nature with science. Everyday, my work is different for me, and I find that really refreshing. [Learn more about her research at Scripps here.]

Please tell us about your tribal community. How does your heritage inform your work?

I am originally from Alaska, and I am part Iñupiaq from the village of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea. My community has been impacted by successive waves of colonialism, which have disrupted our ways of life through relocation, forced assimilation, and loss of culture. Being a member of a group that has been historically and purposefully excluded from decision making processes that directly affect our lives and environment motivated me to enter into the Earth sciences.
 

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A woman wearing a red parka in an icy area cutting through a block of ice with a chainsaw
Scripps scientist Sarah Aarons cutting an ice core sample at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

Both of my parents were hugely influential for getting me into this field. My mom instilled a strong sense of protecting our environment at all costs in me. My dad was a geophysicist in another life, and introduced me to geology at a really young age. After entering academia, the presence and support of other women of color in the geosciences was very important in keeping me here. Professor Kathleen Johnson at UC Irvine started the American Indian Summer Institute in Earth System Science program for Native high school students and really kickstarted and inspired my work in broadening participation of Natives in our field.

How do you feel about the current representation of Native American scientists in your field?

Native American and Alaska Native People have been historically excluded from the Earth sciences. Indigenous knowledge holders, along with the scientific community, provide evidence that the climate in the Arctic is changing at rapid rates compared to lower latitudes, which has many implications for Indigenous people. The impetus to drive research in the Arctic towards multidisciplinary, convergent, and co-productive research only highlights the need to have more broad representation of Indigenous scientists who can directly shape their research questions and agendas in an ethically responsible manner and towards solving societally relevant problems for their communities.

What advice do you have for the next generation of Native American scientists?

Being the only one, or one of the firsts in your field can be incredibly lonely and isolating. For me, finding a community of people who understood my perspectives and experiences as a Native scientist was so influential to keep me in the field. All I can say is that representation matters, and knowing that there are other Natives out there in the Earth sciences makes me feel less alone. Becoming involved with organizations like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Lighting the Pathway program and being able to share our experiences builds our social and political capital for navigating academia.

 

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A smiling woman in front of a tropical green forest
Scripps PhD student Anela Akiona.

ANELA AKIONA, PHD STUDENT

What is your role at Scripps?

I'm a third-year marine biology PhD student studying coral reef fish ecology in Dr. Stuart Sandin's lab, using data from the 100 Island Challenge to study how fish assemblages are shaped across large spatial scales. Additionally, I’m part of a collaborative NOAA project modeling how different interventions might help mitigate climate change impacts on coral reefs. I am very fortunate to be supported by the NSF GRFP and the Tribal Membership Initiative Fellowship, which is specifically for Indigenous students. In addition to my research, I am involved in several diversity initiatives at Scripps and am on the leadership team for the Women and Minorities in Science (WMIS) group, where I currently coordinate the Growing Up in Science series.

Please tell us about your tribal community. How does your heritage inform your work?

In my PhD application I wrote that "as a Native Hawaiian, learning about the marine world has been both an academic and a cultural endeavor," which is still true today. Hawaiians have been studying the ocean for thousands of years, and I attribute my interest in marine biology to this strong cultural connection – we are a seafaring people, after all. And while Hawaiians are the original stewards of the land and sea in Hawaiʻi, today that is not entirely the case. Part of my desire to be a scientist has stemmed from the lack of Native Hawaiian representation in conservation, research, and management. Hawaiians should be managing Hawaiʻi’s marine resources, and every career decision I have made has been with this in mind.

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A scuba diver conducts research underwater over a coral reef
Scripps student Anela Akiona conducting fieldwork for the 100 Island Challenge.


Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

I am very blessed to have incredibly supportive parents who encouraged my curiosity, from exploring tidepools to catching sand crabs to dissecting the fish my dad caught. While I am a first-gen student, it was never a question of if I would go to college, but where. As an undergraduate at the University of San Diego, I was fortunate to take a class taught by Dr. Sarah Gray, who has been there through the ups and downs of my graduate school journey, providing invaluable advice and writing countless letters of recommendation. At Scripps, I am consistently inspired by Dr. Anela Choy, whose journey so closely mirrors my own.

How do you feel about the current representation of Native American scientists in your field?

The lack of representation of Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous groups in science can be incredibly disheartening and is a manifestation of the continued oppression and disenfranchisement of our people. It is discouraging to look around and not see anyone who looks like you or who comes from the same background, which I felt even when I was a graduate student in Hawaiʻi. Despite all this, I am encouraged by the new generation of Hawaiian scientists and their commitment to community and culture. One of my career goals is to increase Indigenous representation in science, particularly Native Hawaiian representation in Hawaiʻi, through mentoring and outreach.

What advice do you have for the next generation of Native American scientists?

Imposter syndrome is normal, but know that your entire community is cheering you on. Don't let other people's insecurities or prejudices make you think that you aren't just as qualified and deserving as your peers. You are smart, you are capable, you are worthy, and you belong in this space. Our Indigenous heritage makes us better scientists, and you should strive to find a mentor that appreciates and celebrates that.

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