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Cover Story

June 29, 2009
Volume 87, Number 26
pp. 10 - 14

Long Journey

Chemist travels through Native American land to improve education one student, one instructor at a time

Linda Wang

Linda Wang/C&EN
On The Road A view of Montana's barren landscape from Jose's Buick Century.
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Linda Wang/C&EN (both)
Roots of science Students in Crebs's class performed thin-layer chromatography on extracts of bear root (top).
Doug Stevens
PICTURESQUE Salish Kootenai College is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Shown here is the math and science building.
Linda Wang/C&EN
TEAMWORK At Salish Kootenai College, Jose (center) discusses research with Marville (right) and Native American prepharmacy student Corrie Villegas.
Linda Wang/C&EN
SMALL GROUP Crebs (right) engages DeCora (center left) and his classmates in conversation about science.

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The speedometer of his 2001 Buick Century hits 100 mph, but he doesn't feel like he's going fast enough. Robin Jose, 33, glances at the digital clock on the dashboard and presses his foot harder on the gas pedal.

Jose is hoping to shave some time off the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Stone Child College on Montana's Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation to Fort Belknap College on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

In Big Sky Country, the long, straight roads that stretch for hundreds of miles through often desolate and unchanging landscape can make people feel as if they're going nowhere. But Jose continues to accelerate, knowing that every mile forward gets him closer to his destination.

Jose is an assistant professor of chemistry and director of the nuclear magnetic resonance facility at Rocky Mountain College (Rocky), in Billings, Mont. He has spent the past two years making frequent road trips to six tribal colleges on Indian reservations across Montana. He's trying to get students and instructors at those schools up to speed in NMR and other organic chemistry techniques and motivate them to see the value of chemistry in their lives.

The extreme variability in the quality of chemistry education offered at these tribal colleges, the high rate of faculty turnover, and the unique needs of nontraditional students make these trips particularly challenging. The enthusiasm of both students and instructors for the chemistry that Jose brings is his precious reward, but some instructors simply ignore his offers to help. Jose is on a lonely mission—one that's not certain to succeed.

Sometimes Jose's eyes sting after hours of driving against the sun. If he doesn't get a good night's sleep, his entire body aches.

The closest tribal college, Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation, is a 45-minute drive from Billings. The farthest, Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation, is a six-hour drive.

During overnight trips, Jose crashes at low-budget motels that offer free breakfast. He phones his wife and toddler son, who live in Las Vegas to accommodate his wife's job, to tell them about his day. A man of deep Christian faith, Jose often passes the lonely hours in his car by praying.

As Jose drives, the semiarid landscape changes little. A cluster of plain boxy houses suddenly appears out of nowhere, interrupting the monotonous scenery. Plastic bottles and other trash litter the roadside.

In April, C&EN hit the road with Jose as he visited four tribal colleges that are participating in Rocky's NMR project. Stone Child in north-central Montana is nothing more than two lodge-style buildings and a parking lot surrounded by dry, barren land. Fort Belknap and Little Big Horn, in northern and southern Montana, respectively, are of similar scale to Stone Child and just as remote. Salish Kootenai benefits from a more scenic location in northwestern Montana. The campus' roughly two dozen lodge-style buildings nestle amid tall pine trees surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Tribal colleges were created in the late 1960s to preserve and protect Native American culture and to prepare students for jobs on their reservations. The first tribal college, Diné College, in Tsaile, Ariz., was founded in 1968. Today, 36 tribal colleges in the U.S. and one in Canada serve more than 31,000 students from more than 250 Native American tribes, according to the American Indian College Fund.

Most tribal colleges are located on Indian reservations. They are typically two-year institutions offering associate's degrees, but a growing number of these schools have started to offer four-year bachelor's degrees in some subjects. Salish Kootenai, for example, offers a bachelor's degree in environmental science and plans to offer a bachelor's degree in life sciences.

So far, no tribal college offers a degree in chemistry, but most offer at least one semester of chemistry to fulfill requirements for associate degrees in nursing, natural resources, environmental science, and other majors relevant to jobs on the reservations.

The story of Jose's journey into Native American territory began in 2004 when Rocky purchased a 300-MHz NMR machine with grants from the Rocky Mountain Technology Foundation and the W. M. Keck Foundation. As part of these grants, Rocky committed to providing Montana's tribal colleges access to the instrument. "We wanted to expose tribal students to NMR and get them excited about science," says Rocky chemistry professor Cristi Hunnes, who spearheaded the NMR project. In 2007, Hunnes hired Jose, a new Ph.D., to carry the project forward.

Jose is setting up each tribal college with remote access to Rocky's NMR machine. Once the connections are complete, each school will be able to send samples to Rocky and use its own computers, which will communicate with the NMR machine, to collect the resulting spectra.

Setting up remote access is only part of the NMR project. Jose also travels to the colleges every semester to give students a 45-minute introductory lecture about NMR. The face time gives students an opportunity to ask questions, Jose says.

Sometimes Jose feels as if nobody is listening. In March, for example, after the five-hour drive from Billings to Stone Child to give the NMR talk, Jose arrived to find that only two of the six students had shown up for class that day. He waited nearly two hours for more students to arrive, but none did, so he gave his talk to just two students.

But someone else in that classroom was paying close attention to Jose. Douglas Crebs, who has taught chemistry at Stone Child for the past 16 years, says that he never really understood NMR until he started working with Jose two years ago. Now, he can't get enough of it.

Crebs has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in science education, and since working with Jose, he has learned other organic chemistry techniques, including thin-layer chromatography (TLC) and column chromatography. When Jose visited in April, he showed Crebs how to pack a chromatography column. The next day, Crebs taught the technique to his chemistry class, even though only one student showed up. The student, Wyatt DeCora, says he later explained the technique to his classmates, who missed the lab.

Poor attendance doesn't discourage Crebs. He's revised his general chemistry course to include two weeks of organic chemistry and, with Jose's guidance, added several organic chemistry experiments, such as aspirin synthesis, to the lab portion of the course. Because of the new activities, Crebs says, he has been buying things he's never bought for his class before, such as TLC plates, chromatography columns, and a rotary evaporator, using funds from a National Science Foundation grant.

Crebs has even gotten his students to use TLC, column chromatography, and NMR to determine whether there are active compounds in bear root, a medicinal plant used in Native American spiritual purification and healing ceremonies. Students are particularly interested in experiments that are culturally relevant, he says.

But this type of chemistry can clash with Native American culture. Bear root and other plants used in Native American ceremonies are considered sacred, Crebs explains, and experimenting with them is taboo. "A lot of people would be a little bit jaundiced about what we're doing here," he says. "They wouldn't appreciate what we're doing with this cultural object."

So Crebs has to be evasive sometimes. "When anybody asks me what I'm doing, I tell them I'm working with Lomatium macrocarpum. That's the scientific name of the plant," he says. "I avoid saying bear root."

In May, Crebs, DeCora, and two other students took the aspirin they synthesized, as well as four fractions of the bear root extract, to Rocky for NMR analysis. "I just showed them once" how to run the samples, Jose says, "and they started running the samples on their own. It was so awesome."

The students verified that they had prepared pure aspirin. And of the four bear root fractions, two contained detectable compounds. More work is needed to determine the structures of these compounds, Jose says. He hopes that once Stone Child's remote access system is up and running this year, Crebs's future students won't need to travel the almost 300 miles to Rocky for NMR analysis.

DeCora is a natural resources major who's interested in forestry and water quality. Learning about organic chemistry techniques got him thinking about other career possibilities, such as forensics and even chemistry, he says. If he decides to stay in natural resources, he says, he can apply these techniques to studying water contamination, for example. He's even thinking about applying to Rocky to pursue a bachelor's degree, after seeing the school's NMR machine and other high-tech lab instruments. "I would be interested in learning more about these techniques," he says. "We just touched on the basics."

The mere thought that a tribal college student like DeCora might enroll in one of his chemistry courses at Rocky put a huge grin on Jose's face. If that were to happen, he says, "I would be so proud of myself."

"What's really been incredible is how much we're doing with how little that we have."

Jose knows how education can change a person's life. The youngest of eight children, he grew up in the small village of Chengalam, in southwestern India. Both his parents were farmers who struggled to put food on the table, but they valued education and encouraged all of their children to stay in school.

Working his way through college, Jose couldn't afford to buy books, so he shared with friends. He eventually earned a B.Sc. in chemistry from Mahatma Gandhi University, in India, and went on to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wyoming. Education has changed his perspective of the world and improved his quality of life, he says, and Native American students should have the same opportunities.

Jose is not the first chemist to try improving the science curriculum at Montana's tribal colleges. About four years ago, Native American biochemist R. Michael Ceballos tried to push the envelope at Salish Kootenai. "I wanted to make sure Native students at the tribal colleges were getting exactly the same quality of science education as that at mainstream universities," he says.

Ceballos developed a chemistry course that was as rigorous as ones at the University of Montana. He converted an old storage room into a fully equipped biochemistry and molecular biology lab, the first at any tribal college, he says. And he pushed his students to do research and to present at scientific conferences. He even participated in Rocky's then-fledgling NMR program and successfully set up Salish Kootenai's remote access to the NMR machine.

But ultimately, Ceballos says, conflicting views over the role of hard science in tribal college education drove him to move to the University of Montana, where he now runs the thriving Native American Research Labs. "Some supported me, some battled me tooth and nail," he says. "I think that what I was trying to do was beyond the scope of what the tribal college had their sights on."

Tribal colleges continue to grapple with the question of whether providing hard-science opportunities for students takes away from their mission of preserving language, heritage, and culture, Ceballos says. "I think that you can participate in a global science community and in cross-cultural activities and still maintain who you are and where you came from," he says.

Although seemingly primitive, science education at tribal colleges has in fact made significant progress over the past two decades. "When I first started teaching here, we didn't even have a lab," Crebs says of Stone Child. "We used to have to do our labs at the high school." At the time, the college offered only one semester of biological chemistry. Now, it offers a full year of general chemistry, and Crebs has collected an impressive array of laboratory equipment using grant money he's obtained over the years.

Outside Montana, the progress of tribal colleges is also evident. Dan Burns, science director at Northwest Indian College, in Bellingham, Wash., says the college had no science facilities at all when he started teaching there almost 20 years ago. "I taught science in the library using a flip chart," he says. Now, the school is about to break ground on a new science building.

"What's really been incredible is how much we're doing with how little that we have," says Marnie Carroll, executive director of the Diné Environmental Institute at tribal college Diné. "People just don't have any concept about all the challenges that these students face. It's tremendous."

Although not up to the standards of mainstream universities, Salish Kootenai's chemistry curriculum is among the most advanced at the tribal schools. The course offerings include three quarters of general chemistry and three quarters of organic chemistry, both with separate lab courses. The college also offers a two-course sequence in environmental chemistry.

The five science instructors, none Native Americans, have Ph.D.s in various fields of science. Students conduct research in the school's environmental chemistry lab and its molecular biology and biochemistry lab.

Kelly Marville, who has a Ph.D. in natural products chemistry and teaches general chemistry, has been working closely with Jose to reestablish Salish Kootenai's remote access so that students can begin using NMR to analyze samples. The remote access Ceballos previously set up lapsed after he left.

Progress is slower at other tribal schools.

On the second half of his trip, Jose pulls into Fort Belknap's gravel parking lot. He pops his head into instructor Erica McKeon-Hanson's class, which is just about to end for the day. McKeon-Hanson started teaching science at Fort Belknap last August, and Jose hopes she'll get involved in the NMR project. It'll be a brand-new relationship for Jose because the chemistry instructor he had previously been working with recently quit.

McKeon-Hanson, who has a bachelor's in biology, a minor in chemistry, and a master's in education, has her work cut out for her. In addition to chemistry, she teaches biology, anatomy/physiology, bioethics, and medical terminology. Despite her heavy workload, she says she is very interested in working with Jose to develop some organic chemistry labs for her students. She loves her job at Fort Belknap and plans to stay for at least a few years, she says, despite the low pay and no prospects of getting tenure.

"If you're not motivated, you cannot motivate anybody else."

Jose hopes that she'll stick it out. "The biggest hurdle we have so far is faculty turnover at the tribal schools," he says. "Somebody will be interested in NMR, then after a year or so, that person leaves the job, and we have to start all over again."

Jose thanks McKeon-Hanson for meeting with him and tells her he'll be back in the fall to give his NMR talk to her chemistry class. He'll then discuss with her the possibility of setting up remote access to Rocky's NMR machine. Before leaving, Jose places a few fliers for Rocky on tables in an area where students gather.

Despite his best intentions, Jose realizes that not everyone wants his help. The next day, at Little Big Horn, Jose peers into the dark office of Native American instructor Shonna Dominguez, who teaches chemistry at the school. He had hoped to catch her in person, but no luck. Jack Plaggemeyer, one of the science instructors, says Dominguez, who has a bachelor's degree in biology, has expressed a lack of confidence in doing chemistry labs.

This past semester, Jose left more than a dozen phone messages for Dominguez, offering to help develop some organic chemistry labs. He says Dominguez, whom C&EN could not reach for comment, initially expressed interest in the project but has since stopped communicating with him. Jose doesn't blame her, however, because he knows her plate is full with seven children at home to take care of, on top of trying to obtain a master's degree of her own.

Still, Jose isn't giving up hope that one day he'll get through to her. Because of Little Big Horn's relative proximity to Rocky, he says, "they can get the maximum benefit from this."

Dianna Hooker, who chairs the science department at Little Big Horn, hopes Jose will persist because she sees the value of what he's trying to do. "It maybe seems like a waste of time to have a researcher come down and try to do this, but if you even catch one student that way and get them interested enough to say, 'Hey, I never knew I could do that, that's something real, that's something I might turn into a profession,' I think it's worth it to change one life that way," she says.

At the end of the three-day trip, Jose pulls into the parking lot of Rocky's Bair Science Center. The college is about to break ground on a new wing that will house research labs. He glances at the odometer: He has driven 1,249 miles.

It's a long road ahead for the NMR project, and Jose won't always have the physical stamina to make these grueling road trips. But for now, he plans to keep driving. "If you're not motivated," he says, "you cannot motivate anybody else."

Cover Story

  • Long Journey
  • Chemist travels through native american land to improve education one student, one instructor at a time
  • A Home Away From Home
  • Native American Research Labs give students research experience in a setting that feels like home
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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