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7 Indigenous People in STEM You Should Know

June 08, 2021

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

Innovation, resilience, and collaboration know no borders, and since June is National Indigenous History Month, we are amplifying the voices of Indigenous Two-spirit folks and Indigenous women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and their fights for their traditions to be recognized within STEM. In particular, members of the Indigenous science community have endorsed the March for Science, and have tirelessly advocated for Indigenous knowledge to be recognized as just as important as Western science, as well as creating access to STEM careers for Indigenous people. Read more about this at CBC and read on here for the profiles (in no particular order) of some fabulous and inspiring people who have contributed to the STEM fields and have made or are making waves! 

Source: Toronto Star

Dr. Nadine Caron

Dr. Caron is the first Indigenous woman to graduate from the University of British Columbia's medical school at the top of her class and Canada's first female First Nations general surgeon. She was born in Kamloops, British Columbia, completed her BSc in Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University in 1993, and completed her MD at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. She also completed an MA in Public Health at Harvard University. She works as a general endocrine surgeon and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery in the UBC Faculty of Medicine. In an interview with CBC, she says she's optimistic about the future of Indigenous health care in Canada, but there is so much work still to be done: "Sometimes I'm so optimistic...And then on other days I experience things in the hallways or I hear things that are unintended to be heard and you just hang your head ... And so I think in the end it's just like anything else. We're not there yet but we don't even have the right to stop trying to get there." She believes that Indigenous healing practices and Western medicine can coexist, but that "First Nations people and our other Aboriginal people in Canada really need to be respected." You can find her profile at UBC here.

Source: Wikipedia

Shaaw Tláa (aka Kate Carmack)

In Yukon, four men have been credited with discovering gold in 1896, but a Tagish First Nation woman Kate Carmack played an integral role in this discovery and even has been inducted in Canada's Mining Hall of Fame (albeit 19 years after the men in the discovery party were inducted). A gold rush was sparked by the discovery of gold in Ch'ö`chozhù' ndek (or, Bonanza Creek). Prior to this discovery of gold, Kate married her first cousin as a young woman, but her husband passed away from influenza. In 1887, Kate's brother and nephew started a packing, hunting, and prospecting partnership with George Carmack, who Kate (then Shaaw Tláa) married. She took the name of Kate Carmack and made winter clothing that they sold to miners. The telling of the gold discovery story is usually heavily centred on the men involved, but Kate was very much a part of the story as well. In fact, she was there when the first nugget of gold was pulled from the creek and she worked alongside her brother, nephew, and George Carmack. While she may not have had a direct impact on the story, the writer of Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, Deb Vanasse, says, "I think of Kate, in terms of mining, the way we look at all the support people who surround mining, even today — the engineers, the people who help with the processes — it's not just who found the particular mineral that's being brought from the ground, it's all the people who make that happen. And that's the role she played." 

Source: CBC

Dr. Chelsea Benally

Chelsea Benally is the first Indigenous woman to graduate with PhD in engineering from the University of Alberta. As a teenager growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, Benally said it was a Grade 7 class in environmental technology that inspired her to pursue science in the first place. She learned for the first time about environmental decline, and it made her want to do something about it. She devoted her studies throughout high school to science, and realized there were very few Indigenous women in STEM, which just spurred her on. She began to work with a Navajo scientist, Fred Begay, at Los Alamos National Laboratory developing alternative energy sources, then began her studies at the University of Arizona. Early on in her university career, she had a son with her partner, who was from the Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta. She visited Alberta many times and learned about the engineering department at the University of Alberta. She decided to focus on oil sands remediation, and says, "I knew I liked it here, and I knew about some of the issues involving oilsands tailings ponds and First Nation communities,” she said. “I also knew from my son's father that there weren't a lot of Indigenous people who were engineers, not as many as there should be." She is now doing a post-doctoral fellowship analyzing the mud under tailings pond water, and wants to continue working in water and remediation while helping to increase First Nations participation in engineering. 

Source: Google

Mary G. Ross

Mary G. Ross was part of the original engineering team at Lockheed's Missile Systems Division, where she worked on a number of defense systems, and contributed to space exploration efforts with her work relating to the Apollo program, the Polaris reentry vehicle, and interplanetary space probes. She is known as the first Native American woman engineer. Her great-great-grandfather, John Ross, was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation between 1828 and 1866. Ross remarked later that she had been brought up in the Cherokee tradition of equal education for both boys and girls. She was, however, the only girl in her math class, which did not seem to bother her, and her early interests were math, physics, and science. she was sent to live with her grandparents in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah to attend primary and secondary school. When she was 16, Ross enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers' College in Tahlequah. She earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1928, at age 20. She received her master's degree from the Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley, Colorado in 1938, taking "every astronomy class they had." In 1942, she was hired by Lockheed Martin as a mathematician. It was there that she was encouraged to earn her professional certification in aeronautical engineering from UCLA in 1949, after which she broke new ground as one of the 40 founding members of the top-secret Skunk Works team. Her work on the team included developing initial design concepts for interplanetary space travel (including flyby missions to Venus and Mars) and satellites including the Agena rocket. See this Google Doodle for a great writeup on Mary G. Ross.

Source: Pinterest

Dr. James Makokis

Dr. James A. Makokis is a Nehiyô (Plains Cree) Family Physician from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in northeastern Alberta and the recent winner of Season 7 of “The Amazing Race Canada” with his husband Anthony Johnson as “Team Ahkameyimok” (“Never give up” in the Plains Cree language). Makokis is an Indigenous two-spirit person and is particularly noted for treating transgender people from the Cree communities and around the world, with many patients traveling from long distances to see him. His practices combines traditional Cree and Western medical practices. Makokis wanted to be a doctor since he was four, and as an adult his colleague Adrian Edgar (a former president of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health) suggested Makokis focus on trans healthcare, because few physicians were providing medical care for transitioning patients in that region; additionally many trans as well as Indigenous people can be wary of the mainstream health system and doctors from their own communities are sought after. He earned his Master's in health science from the University of Toronto in 2006, and graduated from the University of Ottawa's medical school in 2010 and the University of British Columbia's Aboriginal Family Medicine Residency Training Program in 2012. He and his husband, while running "The Amazing Race Canada," wore clothing that made a statement: homemade red skirts with rainbow ribbons to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and also to represent transgender and two-spirit people; and T-shirts with the words "water is life," to bring awareness to the ongoing water crisis in Indigenous communities.

Source: Flare

Shyra Barberstock

Before she pursued post-secondary education, Shyra Barberstock worked a series of jobs she didn’t enjoy. On the advice of friends and by several strokes of luck, she then landed a job teaching computer software—skills that she had taught herself—and it was through this role that she learned she likes working in tech. After seven years, though, she decided to enroll at Western to pursue geography and First Nations studies; the latter was an interest that came about after meeting her birth mother at 21 and discovering she was Anishinaabe, something she hadn’t known having been adopted by a non-Indigenous family. In 2014, she launched Okwaho Network, an Indigenous inspired social network that connects Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to the greater global Indigenous community. In its first week, the network went global, with users signing up from New Zealand, the United States and Australia. There are now also many non-Indigenous users who joined because they wanted to find and connect with Indigenous people. Read more here about why the network is run by women!

Source: Women Warriors

Dr. Lillian Dyck

The Honourable Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck is a former Canadian senator from Saskatchewan. A member of the Cree George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, and a first generation Chinese Canadian, she is the first female First Nations senator and first Canadian-born senator of Chinese descent. She was appointed to the Senate in 2005 and served until 2020. Before being appointed to the Senate, she was a neuroscientist with the University of Saskatchewan, earning her Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Master of Science Degrees in Biochemistry in 1968 and 1970, respectively, and obtaining a Ph.D. in Biological Psychiatry in 1981. Senator Dyck has served as Deputy Chair and Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Most of her senate work has been on the tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls. She successfully advocated for changes to legislation that will require judges to consider stiffer penalties for violent crimes against Indigenous women. She also worked on Bill S-3, a bill that to restore official Indian status for thousands of women who lost their status for marrying non-indigenous men. She is a member of the Progressive Senate Group

Did you know that we've featured Indigenous women in STEM on our podcast, too? Check out our latest episode with highlights from their episodes here!