Dr. Donna Nelson is someone we should all be grateful for. And, in recognition of Thanksgiving, I hope you’ll join me in supporting and amplifying the voices of her and the many more (but not nearly enough) Indigenous peoples in science. 

Photo credit: Sarah Wilson, 2013

Donna Nelson is a talented organic chemist in her own right, but she is better known for drawing evidence-backed attention to the lack of gender and ethnic diversity among faculty in top science departments through her Nelson Diversity Surveys. If one looked, it has always been clear to see that this underrepresentation exists and, thanks to Nelson, we now have statistics to point to to back us up and help us improve the situation. 

Nelson was born and raised in Eufaula, Oklahoma, the heart of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She studied chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and went on to receive a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin followed by post-doctoral research at Purdue University before returning to the University of Oklahoma as a faculty member (the only woman (not to mention, mother) and Native American in her department) in 1983, where she is currently a Professor of Chemistry.

Her organic chemistry research has included work on single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs). She developed a way to apply a common technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) to study how these molecules react with other molecules. To further advance her research, she worked as a visiting scholar at MIT and in 2016, she served as President of the American Chemical Society (ACS). She also collaborated with Native American tribes to address diabetes in their communities. 

Nelson wants to make sure that the science people see is always right – whether it be in a textbook (she has led missions to fix undergraduate organic chemistry textbook errors) or on TV – she served as a science advisor for Breaking Bad. https://bit.ly/37cQfHd 

Beginning in the early 2000s, she conducted what came to be known as the Nelson Diversity Surveys – a comprehensive look at diversity among tenured and tenure-track faculty in the science departments of “top” (in terms of federal funding) science departments. These were the first national surveys of this kind and while the picture she found was often grim, these surveys have provided valuable evidence to back up pushes for increased diversity. The surveys have been frequently cited, and its data has even been used by the US’ Government Accountability Office with regards to Title IX. 

Data have been collected in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2012 and can be found here: http://drdonnajnelson.oucreate.com//diversity/top50.html 

In addition to some pushback from people happy with the status quo, her work has earned her a Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women. 

As a Native American woman in science, Nelson knows what it’s like to be the “only one” or the “one of a few” in a department – but she also knows that she is not alone in the broader field of science and wants to help create a network to help connect scientists of color and provide resources to help them succeed (in addition to her work getting institutions to diversify their faculty – with her data to back her up). To this end, Dr. Nelson is active with SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. https://bit.ly/3l9Zq04  

SACNAS “is an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM.” Basically, they’re doing incredible (and incredibly important) work to help people who have been marginalized by the scientific society (and society at large) for far too long.⠀If you want to support SACNAS, visit https://www.sacnas.org/who-we-are/  

Native American and Alaska Natives are underrepresented in STEM at all levels and traditional Native knowledge is often discounted as not “scientific” if it hasn’t been “proven” using the conventional scientific experiment pathway. For example, I heard a story on NPR Shortwave recently about how Indigenous scientists have been using cultural burns for years and successfully prevented massive wildfires in doing so, yet they’re called “arsonists” by some for doing so. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/21/904600242/managing-wildfire-through-cultural-burning ⠀

I also heard a great episode of Shortwave where host Maddie Sofia interviews Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, a reporter and editor with the public media news organization Indian Country Today and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. Bennett-Begaye is doing important work to collect more information about how COVID-19 is disproportionally impacting Tribal Nations. The CDC put out a report (which showed Tribal Nations were being hit hard) – but that report left out a LOT – like whole states a lot. So Bennett-Begaye and colleagues have been working to gather the needed data themselves. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/916824718 ⠀⠀

In addition to donating to SACNAS, if you do choose to “celebrate” Thanksgiving, there are ways to bring anti-racism to it. For example, you can use the Native Land website to search for your zip code and find out the original inhabitants of the land. Then you can learn more about the tribe (and how to support them), and give a territorial acknowledgment before your feast. (and hopefully this will lead everyone to take further action to redress the injustices)

I didn’t have a feast today, but I did participate in a Zoom game session with family, and I requested that we start the game session by saying a sentence about the tribe whose land we occupy. You can search for it here: https://native-land.ca/ 

I acknowledge that the beautiful land I live on and which I’m very grateful for is occupied land of the Matinecocks, a branch of the Algonquin Indian Nation. Located in northwestern Long Island, the Matinecocks were some of the first Native Americans to face brutal colonization. Holland attempted to colonize their land in the early 1640s (including a brutal massacre in 1643), followed by England, who “successfully” seized the lands. But they did not wipe out the Matinecocks. Thanks in part to the advocacy and leadership of Ann Harding Murdock (Sun Tama), the Matinecock Indian Tribe was formally reactivated in 1958, and in 1975 they began revitalization of their ancestral religion. https://bit.ly/33lBrFf 

In the 1930s, a Matinecock burial ground was dug up in order to widen a street (the ancestral remains were moved to a mass grave). In 2015, the location, at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Marathon Parkway was renamed co-named “Matinecock Way.” The site has added significance because it is also the site of the last battle waged for control of the land, “The Battle of Madnan’s Neck”. https://bit.ly/33eEBL1 The street co-naming was brought about in large part thanks to the work of tribal members and the Bayside Historical Society and aims to draw attention to the “living history” of the Matinecocks. 

You can find more suggestions on how to “bring anti-racism to the Thanksgiving table” in this NPR piece by Piper McDaniel: https://n.pr/369cleo 

Note: I am sooooo grateful for so many things. And I think about that a lot and definitely am reflecting on the things I’m grateful for today. But a lot of the things I’m grateful for (such as receiving an amazing education throughout my life) come in large part because of privilege I have which I did nothing to deserve. I was just born into fortuitous circumstances. On land that was stolen. And the people whom the land was stolen from face such inequity. So I want to use my privilege to, instead of just being grateful for it, try to do some small part to help others get a fair share. So please, if you can, donate, volunteer, or do whatever you can to help. 

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