Native Americans in technology: achievers and role models
Many Native American techies see value in helping future generations succeed
“When tribes grow stronger, they can provide more and better resources to their people.” – Travis Waldo, NICG
By Laurel A. McKee Ranger
Very little data on Native American participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers is available, according to Sarah EchoHawk, chief executive officer of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
“There is a lack of detailed data for Indian Country in general. We’re often put in the ‘other’ category. We are a very small percentage of the population,” EchoHawk says.
The 2010 census indicates that 1.7 percent of the U.S. population is at least partially American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.9 percent identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone. Participation in STEM careers is even lower: Census data indicates that only 0.4 percent of those employed in STEM occupations identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone.
EchoHawk notes, “When AISES was founded in 1977, there were very few Native Americans in STEM careers. There has been an increase since then, but not much growth in recent years.
“One of the main issues that we face is a lack of resources to support middle school and high school students and their families. By the time they get to college, they are often lacking the prerequisites necessary for careers in STEM,” EchoHawk says.
EchoHawk notes that more than 70 percent of the Native American population is urban, and approximately 80 percent attend mainstream colleges. In these schools, students may not get the support they need to help them earn STEM degrees.
In contrast, she notes, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) offer more support but often lack the resources of larger mainstream schools. Only 8.7 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native college students attend one of the thirty-two accredited TCUs.
Dianna Baldwin, Osage/Kaw/Cherokee, fights influenza at Novartis
Dianna Baldwin is a scientific associate II at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR, Cambridge, MA). NIBR is the global pharmaceutical research organization for international pharmaceutical company Novartis. The NIBR network employs more than 6,000 scientists, physicians and business professionals who work at eight campuses across the U.S., Europe and Asia. Baldwin works at the company’s Emeryville, CA facility.
“I work in a group that is responsible for discovering and evaluating novel drug targets for influenza. We also evaluate compounds of interest by using cellular assays and other research methods to determine their safety and effectiveness against the flu,” Baldwin says.
Baldwin is responsible for running assays and producing data. She also performs molecular biology experiments to support efforts to find a new treatment for influenza. Although Baldwin has no direct reports, she works with and trains interns and new hires.
A culture of respect
Baldwin was born in Oklahoma and raised in Bismarck, AR and Monterey County, CA. Her father, a professor at California State University Monterey Bay, is Osage and Kaw and her mother is Cherokee and Scots-Irish.
“We moved to follow my father’s career at a couple of universities, but our extended family still resides in Oklahoma, both on and off reservation. My culture has given me a philosophy of respect for others. Women and elders are held in high regard. That comes through in my work training others.
“There are some negative aspects of my culture arising from trauma suffered by earlier generations. But I like to think I have left those things in the past and try to focus on the positive and be a role model. Native American students need positive role models,” she says.
Folks, funding and fellowships help a bright student
As a child, Baldwin loved animals and began working at age fourteen for a veterinary clinic, which fostered her interest in science. Her parents encouraged her scientific interests, and she attended the Monterey Academy of Oceanographic Science, an academy associated with a local high school. When it came time for college, she applied to a zoology program.
Baldwin attended San Francisco State University (SFSU, CA) for both her undergraduate degree, a 2009 BS in biology with an emphasis in zoology and a minor in American Indian studies, and her graduate degree, a 2012 MS in cell and molecular biology with an emphasis in stem cell science. Her masters degree was funded by a program run by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
While earning her masters degree, Baldwin worked at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Oakland, CA. Connections proved invaluable. “As an undergraduate, I was recruited into research by Dr Wilfred Denetclaw, a Navajo and principal investigator and professor in the cell and molecular biology department at SFSU. He taught me about minority fellowships and encouraged me to pursue a PhD to become a professor,” Baldwin says.
Baldwin received a number of research fellowships during her university experience, from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the University of California-San Francisco. “Through these opportunities I worked for four separate labs, three focused on muscle regeneration. That’s what kept me in school,” she says.
Before graduating with her masters degree, Baldwin says she applied to so many jobs that she lost count. She applied to Novartis through the company website. “I got an offer pretty quickly,” she says.
Breaking through the stigma of science
For Baldwin, the greatest hurdle has been self-doubt. “Growing up, I didn’t know any relatives or Native friends who were scientists. And there was a distrust of the scientific field left over from generations of abuse inflicted by scientists and medical professionals. I was often discouraged by others who told me science was not a good career choice and that I was better off becoming an attorney and helping tribal citizens through law,” she says.
Baldwin is happy she chose a STEM career. “It’s rewarding to see an entire project come to fruition and for others to be excited about your work. Sometimes experiments can seem tedious, but then at the end you learn a lot that you can share with others. Plus, it’s great to be working in a field where I feel I can contribute to health and well-being,” she says.
Baldwin volunteers with Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG), a Native youth program that teaches media skills and produces a magazine of participants’ work. She is looking to volunteer for other Native programs in the Bay Area and is active in Osage tribal politics. “Novartis participates in Community Partnership Day every year. This year I am helping clean up the Oakland shoreline, and last year I worked to remove invasive plants in a local park. These activities keep me connected and grounded,” she says.
Cherokee Russell Chazell works to protect the environment at the NRC
An environmental scientist with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, Rockville, MD), Russell Chazell supports the environmental protection mission of the agency. He participates in preparing and reviewing environmental impact statements in support of nuclear power plant license renewal applications.
“My primary duty is to analyze and evaluate different alternatives to licensing nuclear power plants. Plants are licensed for forty years, and many apply for twenty-year extensions. I have to determine the environmental impact and whether an extension is reasonable versus alternatives such as a new nuclear plant, or solar, wind or coal. There are lots of interesting alternatives out there,” he says.
A varied education
Chazell has seen interesting alternatives in his own education. He has a 1990 BS in liberal studies with a focus on economics and political science from the University of the State of New York (Albany), a 1996 Juris Doctor from Thomas M. Cooley Law School (Lansing, MI), and a 2009 MS in nuclear engineering from the University of Utah (Salt Lake City).
Chazell says he was the kid with the chemistry set and telescope at home. In 1989 he began working as a lab technician for the Department of the Army in Utah, but later decided to go to law school. During law school he got a job as a lab manager, and after law school graduation, continued to work in the technical arena while practicing corporate law as an additional duty.
“I’ve always tried to keep both my legal and technical skill sets sharp and relevant. I maintain an active law license. Both law and science are important to me,” he explains.
In 2009, Chazell was hired by the NRC. “I was studying nuclear engineering when I was selected for an NRC fellowship. I completed a summer internship at the agency. After graduation, I joined the agency in the nuclear safety professional development program.
“After two years of intensive education and training at the NRC, I graduated from the program and completed my certification as a new reactor project manager,” he says.
Chazell, who is Cherokee, grew up in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona and Utah. “My father was a mine supervisor and worked for companies that sank shafts for hard rock mining. I went to high school in Utah and consider that home. I’m proud of my Cherokee heritage and do my best to honor it.”
He explains that his family moved away from family in Oklahoma when he was very young. “But I have taken it upon myself to learn as much about the culture as possible. I remember my maternal grandmother telling stories,” he says.
Technical challenges and policy changes keep Chazell busy. “There are a variety of issues that must be addressed. But working along with the other dedicated professionals at the NRC, I am privileged to serve our country to fulfill the NRC’s mission of protecting health and safety. It is what first attracted me to the work,” he says.
In his five years with the NRC, Chazell has received four performance awards. He is also a thirty-five-year member of the Civil Air Patrol and currently serves as the organization’s national chief of staff. He has received four Distinguished Service awards for his volunteer work with the Civil Air Patrol. This organization works as an auxiliary arm of the U.S. Air Force and responds to plane crashes and disasters such as Deep Water Horizon, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and wildfires.
Chazell is a current member of the American Bar Association and the Utah State Bar, the Society of American Military Engineers, the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, and AISES.
NRC works to find, keep and develop diverse pros
“Diversity is a strategic business objective at the NRC. It enhances the agency’s ability to carry out its mission of licensing and regulating the nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials to protect public health and safety,” says Kristin Davis, outreach and recruitment branch chief. “The NRC’s diversity management strategy is based on a commitment from managers, supervisors and employees at all levels of the agency,”
To diversify its workforce, the NRC attends events that attract minorities, women, veterans, and people with disabilities at all levels. It advertises in professional journals, publications, websites and other media outlets that target minorities, including Winds of Change, the quarterly magazine produced by AISES.
The agency also uses student employment programs to feed the pipeline for new hires and to bring minorities, females and people with disabilities into its workforce. The NRC provides grants to historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities to provide scholarships and fellowships to students in exchange for their commitment to work at the NRC or in the nuclear industry after graduation.
A rotational assignments program at the agency develops capability and versatility in its staff, and a graduate fellowship program aims to attract and retain highly qualified individuals. The program combines a graduate education and a return to a position within NRC. Other agency programs include a senior executive service candidate development program and a leadership potential program.
The NRC provides employees with tuition assistance for college courses related to the agency’s mission. Its professional development center offers web-based and classroom training.
Davis notes that 0.43 percent of engineers and scientists and 0.54 percent of the IT staff at the NRC are Native American.
Lakota/Ojibwe Willow Young manages programs for MS Bing global support
At Microsoft (Redmond, WA), Bing global support operations program manager Willow Young manages projects, cross-group partnerships and people for the Bing global support group.
As she points out, Microsoft is not just a software company. It is a devices and services company, and the Bing online search platform is a critical service for the company’s customers.
“When I started working for Bing search, we had less than six percent search share, and now the Bing and Yahoo! search share has reached almost thirty percent. I’m incredibly proud to see how my work has helped Bing grow. Now we deliver a successful alternative to Google,” she says.
Young scopes out business problems and opportunities, brings the right resources together to build project teams, and guides teams through the process of solving problems and delivering the best solutions.
“I manage the cross-group relationship with our tier 1 partner group. At a broad company like Microsoft, my team is one strand in a large interdependent web, and it’s important to have close connections with all partner groups,” she notes. Young has three direct reports.
Young has an unusual background for her current role. She graduated with a BA with honors in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and a minor in creative writing from Stanford University (CA) in 2003. She worked for the Stanford Daily newspaper to support herself, working many long days and late nights. After graduating, Young took a job with the Seattle Times in print and online advertising.
“I never expected to work for Microsoft, but the skills I picked up on the newspaper allowed me to join the Bing search advertising team. A friend mentioned there was an opportunity at Microsoft and I began a persistent campaign to show I would be an asset to the company. I’ve been at Microsoft for five years now. My program management skills and my knowledge of Bing search helped me to work my way up. Bing is my passion now, but I also have a passion for process improvement and project management,” she says.
Humble beginnings and strong heritage
Young’s father is Lakota and her mother is Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe. Although the family started out in Wisconsin, her parents liked to travel and ultimately moved to the foothills of the Cascades in Washington. Her Native American background and culture play a big role in Young’s life.
“It’s very important to me. I have a strong sense of cultural identity,” she says. “I’m a member of Native Americans at Microsoft. Native employees helped bring the Cherokee language to Windows 8. We host Native events. I’ve spoken at local schools. I love providing helpful resources to students.”
Part of the reason Young feels so strongly about giving back is that her family started out in a cabin with no running water or electricity. “Coming from a rural background with very few resources, I had to create opportunities for myself. The process of overcoming obstacles instilled the values and drive that have helped me succeed. But it’s hard to go to school or work without cultural support. I always seek out places with a Native community, and if the community is missing, then I help create it,” she says.
Young loves the people she works with. “My colleagues are smart, dedicated, creative and interesting people who really care about the work they do.”
In 2012, Young and her colleagues won a Microsoft Diversity and Inclusion award for their Tribal Youth Day event. They hosted about fifty students from many tribes to discuss careers in technology.
In her spare time, Young volunteers with the Skykomish Valley Indian Education program, helping with events, fundraisers and the annual Powwow. She also volunteers for Microsoft’s Day of Caring each year.
Travis Waldo, Cherokee, helps tribes comply with gaming commission rules
Travis Waldo is an IT auditor with the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC, Washington, DC), an independent federal regulatory agency established as a result of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. The NIGC covers more than 240 tribes that conduct gaming operations across the country.
Waldo provides technical assistance and training to tribes to ensure compliance with IGRA and to improve the functioning of their gaming operations and regulatory authorities. As an IT auditor, he also assists tribes by reviewing existing standards and policies to ensure compliance with regulations.
The technologies that Waldo works with cover a wide range, from slot accounting systems to gaming network architectures and security applications. He secures remote access to systems and creates disaster recovery plans and best practices for backing up and restoring data files.
Security issues are a major concern. They range from physical access to the operation assets to virtual access to machine data, accounting data and patrons’ personal information.
Keeping up with a changing field
Indian gaming is a complex and changing field. New and more elaborate games transmit and receive more information, causing the need for robust communication protocols like game-to-system (G2S). Waldo notes that the systems that control and record the information associated with game play are also becoming more complex and powerful. In addition, many tribal IT structures are as advanced as those of any Fortune 500 company.
“Tribal IT structures are often integrated with many other proprietary systems, and it’s imperative that all these systems communicate with each other accurately. Also, as with most of the industry, there is pressure to do more with less. Operations are virtualizing their server environments to reduce costs and increase productivity. This can bring added regulatory challenges, ensuring only employees with proper access credentials are allowed access to virtualized server sets,” he says.
With gaming operations spread out across the country, Waldo spends approximately 50 percent of his time on the road.
He graduated with a BS in biology from Arkansas Technical University (Russellville) in 1998, and became a Cisco Certified Network Associate in 2004. He is also Net+ certified, A+ certified, and a low-voltage data communication associate. He’s also certified by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training as an Oklahoma law enforcement officer.
Before NIGC, Waldo worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he helped create one of the first geospatial databases of Corps land along the Arkansas River and surrounding watersheds. He also worked at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he was involved in satellite telemetry and intelligence.
Dedicated to helping Native American tribes
Most recently, he spent fourteen years with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where he worked in various IT positions, including one serving on the tribal gaming commission. He was recruited for his position with the NIGC by two current NIGC members, and joined in May 2013.
A member of the Cherokee tribe of Oklahoma, Waldo is originally from a small town in east central Arkansas. But his father was a career military man, so he spent most of his youth moving around the country. Nonetheless, Native American culture plays a major role in his life and in his job.
“As a long-term employee of the Cherokee nation and now with the NIGC, I strive to assist Native American tribes in building strong regulatory and gaming operations. I believe that when tribes grow stronger, they are able to provide more and better resources to their people. I often tell the people who sign up for my training, ‘I work for you, not the government, and if I didn’t truly believe that, I would not be here!’”
Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer, Dakota/Sioux: military intell in the U.S. Air Force
Master sergeant Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer works for the U.S. Air Force in military intelligence operations at Fairchild AFB (Spokane, WA). She and her group provide information to commanders and operators, pilots and crews at the AFB.
With the air force for almost twenty years, Ellis-Ulmer has been stationed in North Dakota and North Carolina, South Korea and the Middle East. She has worked with classified computer systems for much of her career. Her group does their own installations and deals with network issues.
“We have administration rights and can add updates to air force mapping programs. We also deal with Google Earth on the classified air force system. Problems in the classified system can not be handled remotely, so we handle that,” she explains. “And we participate in information sharing throughout all branches of the military.”
Ellis-Ulmer joined the air force in 1994 as a target intelligence specialist. The air force put her through technical training. “Now I’m a senior enlisted person for intelligence. I’m in management,” she says.
She has a 2003 associates degree in communications technology from the Community College of the Air Force and a 2004 BS in business and management from Friends University (Wichita, KS). She received her MS in human resources development in 2018 from Villanova University in Philadelphia, PA, attending seminars online. “The instructor facilitates the course. You have a chat box and the ability to raise your hand, and they can take polls. It was an amazing experience,” she says.
Culture and compassion
Ellis-Ulmer’s mother is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate and Santee Sioux, and her father is Norwegian and Welsh. She is descended from Little Crow, Chief Wabasha and Chief Shakopee in Minnesota.
Native American culture is an important part of Ellis-Ulmer’s life. She is the events coordinator for Native American Women Warriors, a group within the National Native American Veterans organization.
“Our group was part of the presidential inaugural parade in 2012. We help Native American homeless veterans, especially women. I’m also a jingle dress dancer, a custom originated by the Ojibwe people. Today, the dance is performed as a prayer of healing.”
Like many others, Ellis-Ulmer had to overcome obstacles as a Native American, including poverty when she was a child. “A lot of Americans are still pretty ignorant about Native history and current conditions for Native Americans, including high unemployment and a high suicide rate. There is generational depression and an internal sense of unworthiness that is perpetuated by society,” she believes. “That’s why I’m passionate about the Native American Women Warriors. As Native Americans, we have provided the largest proportion of military on a percentage basis.
“During World War II there were Menominee, Lakota and Dakota code talkers as well as Navajo,” she says.
Volunteering comes naturally to Ellis-Ulmer. She helps out at her sons’ high school and volunteers at a free women and children’s restaurant every two weeks. “My older two boys also volunteer there. I knew what it was like to be hungry, so I was motivated to be successful and make sure my children always have enough,” she says.
U.S. Air Force seeks the brightest, most diverse
Chief master sergeant Dianne Jones, superintendent of the plans and resources division of the Air Force Recruiting Service, says, “Diversity has a critical role at the air force. We represent all the cultures across America, and we need to reflect that when we come together to make decisions.”
The air force has a robust marketing campaign, notes Jones, employing a variety of media outlets to reach diverse populations. The air force also sponsors local STEM events at elementary schools, high schools, colleges and summer camps to encourage student participation.
All enlisted personnel go through technical training, which is automatically college accredited through the Community College of the Air Force. Further education is available through cooperation with many colleges, and tech certifications are available as well. Jones notes that about two percent of the enlisted force is Native American.
Opportunities are available in IT, cybersecurity, space and command and control systems, flight line assistance maintenance, computer network defense, and many other technical areas on both the enlisted and civilian sides of the air force. Civilian employees must have a bachelors degree, but enlisted members only need to show aptitude and ability to learn, says Jones. “We provide the training. Our mission is to inspire, engage and recruit the brightest, most diverse young men and women for service in America’s air force.”
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