Aaron Thomas makes ice cream using liquid nitrogen with students at the University of Idaho.

Aaron Thomas Selected as New Director of Native American Research Lab at University of Montana

Tanya Lee
10/13/12

Dr. Aaron Thomas, Diné, will take up his new position as director of the Native American Research Laboratories at the University of Montana in January. Thomas was raised in Albuquerque with a brief stint in Texas. He attended Stanford University for his undergraduate work and earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Florida. He is currently a professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Idaho. Thomas, 38, is married and has three children.

How do you anticipate the focus of the lab will change, given that you are a chemical engineer and the lab now focuses on microbiology and biochemistry?

I don't know who's going to change more, me or the lab. I'm going to have to adapt and find my niche, so I think most of the change will be in me. I'm looking forward to that challenge.

Will you be teaching courses at the University of Montana as well as running the lab?

Yes, I will be teaching. I thoroughly enjoy the classroom and will be teaching pre-engineering in the physics department.

Aaron Thomas at the National Science Foundation PECASE Award Ceremony

What is your vision for the Native American Research Lab?

My principal goal is have Native American students get advanced degrees in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] fields, starting with students from local tribes in Montana, though of course we would not turn away anyone from other tribes.

How do you envision reaching out to and working with local tribes and tribal colleges?

First, I'm going to have to travel a lot to visit the tribes, tribal colleges and people. We need to set up a pipeline of students. We can't just wait for them to come to us at the graduate level. Even high school is too late to get students interested in the STEM fields. I want to start at the junior high level with research experiments and then have them all the way through graduate school.

Under your leadership, will the lab focus research on matters of particular significance to Native American communities?

A primary focal point for the lab will be to research questions from the tribes. Let's see if we can work together to find answers to questions brought to us by people on the reservations.

What would be an example?

One of the big issues is fracking for oil and natural gas. What is fracking doing to ground water and surface water? What are the other impacts of fracking on the environment and people? We can conduct our own tests to investigate this issue that is very important to tribes. [Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial method of retrieving oil and natural gas from deep within rock formations. The process involves injecting water, sand and chemicals under pressure into rock formations. The injected material causes fissures in the rock to widen and release the oil and natural gas stored in the rock. The oil and gas flow into a well for recovery. Some of the issues surrounding fracking include the impacts of the chemicals that are used in the process, air pollution and the disposal of wastewater produced by the process.]

What is your position on making the lab available only to Native American students?

Our focus will be on Native American students to investigate issues of importance to the Native American community. If others want to contribute to this work, we can work it out on a case-by-case basis.

How many students will the Native American Research Lab serve?

That depends on funding. We'll be looking to foundations and grant opportunities to fund work at the lab. One thing I do not want is Native American graduate students with no funding, so they would have to get jobs outside the lab.

What do the numbers look like for Native Americans in STEM fields?

Quite a few students are interested in medical fields, but there are not many in the fields of science and engineering. The year I graduated with my Ph.D. in chemical engineering, I was the only person doing that. There are probably only five or 10 Native American tenured faculty in engineering. [As director of the Native American Research Lab, Thomas will have a tenured position at the University of Montana.]

Will the lab incorporate Native American approaches to scientific inquiry?


Native students have a unique perspective on scientific inquiry. Usually the question is "How do we fix whatever the problem is?" Native American scientific methodology asks the question "How is this solution going to impact other things?" A good example is uranium mining. One question is how to get the uranium out of the ground. Native people look at whether the solution to that problem is going to cause other problems. They look at the ramifications of the proposed solution. [Pam Silas, Menominee/Oneida, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), had this to say about Thomas: "Dr. Thomas has been a long-time champion of indigenous-based science and has been looking forward to creating a safe space for American Indians to participate in scientific research, something that has often been difficult because Western science does not necessarily acknowledge other ways of knowing based on inductive rather than deductive reasoning.

"Having a Native person trained in Western scientific methods running the Native American lab at a major university we hope will lead to major contributions from American Indian researchers who bring their own traditions to the work. Dr. Thomas has the solid reputation that could make that a reality."]

How will you approach the directorship of the lab?

I am excited about the lab and hope that it will eventually serve as a national model. As director, I will have the opportunity to define my own role. It's not like stepping into a position teaching chemical engineering where there is already a model of what that job is. There are not that many directors of Native American research labs in the country, so I will be able to determine what direction my role will take.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives Underrepresented in Science and Engineering Fields

The underrepresentation of Native American and Alaska Natives in science and engineering fields has been documented in several ways. According to the National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 2009, a total of 41,111 doctorates were granted in science and engineering by U.S. universities; 154 (0.37 percent) were granted to Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

A total of 134,517 master’s degrees in science and engineering were granted in 2009; 560 (0.4 percent) of those went to Native American and Alaskan Native students.

A total of 505,435 bachelor's degrees in science and engineering were awarded in 2009; of those 3,564 (0.7 percent) were earned by Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

A 2010 report from the University of California Los Angeles' Higher Education Research Institute, "Degrees of Success Bachelor’s Degree Completion Rates among Initial STEM Majors," found that white and Asian American students who started as STEM majors in 2004 had four-year STEM degree completion rates of 24.5 percent and 32.4 percent respectively, compared with 14 percent for Native American students. Five-year completion rates were 33 percent and 42 percent for white and Asian American students respectively, compared with 18.8 percent for Native American students.

"A National Analysis of Minorities in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities," by Donna J. Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, published in 2010, found that in 2007, the top 50 college and university chemistry departments in the nation had a total of two tenure-track full professorships held by Native Americans, one associate professorship and no assistant professorships. The top 50 chemical engineering departments had only one tenure-track Native American faculty. These numbers were comparable to those for other science departments, such as physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and math and science statistics.

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