Cannon Cline ’25, center, of the Nanticoke tribe and co-president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, accompanies prospective Indigenous high school students on a lab tour on March 22.

Through community, Indigenous students thrive in STEM

Growing up in coastal Delaware and Maryland as part of the Nanticoke tribal community, Cannon Cline ’25 became fascinated with the way storms transformed the coastline. As he grew older, he wanted to understand how weather and climate change impacted the land and the communities that live off of it, communities often marginalized like his own.

“I feel very passionate about being able to use what I do and the things I’m interested in to serve my Indigenous community and any underserved community,” said Cline, an Earth and atmospheric sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and co-president of the university’s chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), a student organization focused on strengthening and growing the Indigenous STEM community at Cornell.

Over the last three years, Indigenous students have worked to resurrect AISES-Cornell after it fell dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic – and in rebuilding have made it stronger and more active. With a membership of around 30 students, AISES-Cornell has collaborated with admissions teams in the colleges to ramp up outreach efforts, held fundraisers, sent large contingents to the AISES national and leadership conferences, and provided community and professional development for Indigenous students on campus. The group has become a model chapter and a leader in the region, winning the 2023 AISES Pursuit of Excellence Award and hosting the regional conference twice in the last three years, most recently March 22-23.

Peter Thais ’25, of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe and a biological engineering major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has worked to revitalize the Cornell chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, an organization dedicated to creating community among Indigenous students studying STEM at Cornell.

“The primary goal for our AISES chapter is to create a space for Indigenous STEM students to share their thoughts and ideas and what they have in common,” said Peter Thais ‘25, of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, AISES senior U.S. national student representative and co-president, with Cline, of AISES-Cornell. “I’ve learned there’s so much room for Indigenous peoples in STEM and incorporating community work in STEM, and there’s a lot of traditional knowledge that has a lot of value.”

Increasing visibility, giving back

AISES-Cornell is working to address a challenge many Indigenous students in STEM face: a lack of representation and visibility.

Michael Charles ’16, Diné, citizen of the Navajo Nation, and assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering in CALS, said he’s often been the sole Indigenous person in academic settings.

“There’s an invisibility around just existing that’s hard for students,” said Charles, who serves as informal adviser to AISES and was a part of AISES-Cornell as a student. “Especially students who were raised close to their cultures, a lot of times those cultures are so built on family and connection within their community, that coming to campus can make them feel very isolated.”

Indigenous students can also feel that there isn’t room for their cultural identity within STEM fields, Charles said. “It can be difficult to translate all of the things they do know, to understand that their knowledge and they themselves are a very valuable part of this community.”

But Taylor Heaton ’24, of the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and an Earth and atmospheric sciences major in CALS, said she’s seen firsthand how Indigenous students bring unique approaches and frameworks for thinking about problems in STEM fields, especially those related to the environment.

“Sustainability is at the core of a lot of Indigenous communities and always has been,” said Heaton, former president of AISES-Cornell and now the events chair.

Heaton gave as an example the Tlingit value “Wooch Yáx,” which means balance, reciprocity and respect. Thais referenced the Haudenosaunee’s “one dish, one spoon” principle of taking only what is needed from the land. And Charles has framed concepts in chemical engineering through the Navajo worldview embodied in “hózhó,” meaning beauty and balance.

“Within our culture, we’re very much taught within a reciprocity framework, within a community framework, rather than any individual goal or focus,” Charles said. “When we start thinking about how to balance what we give back to landscapes, to nature and what we’re taking and receiving, that fits within these pretty basic sustainability concepts.”

Many students’ work reflects this community focus: Cline hopes his research on saltwater intrusion modeling will help policymakers protect vulnerable agricultural coastal communities as extreme weather events increase. Thais studies the impact of land dispossession on Indigenous food systems in Charles’ lab; he hopes the story his data tells can shape policy to protect and restore the land and provide justice to those whose lands were dispossessed.

“I’ve learned over time that not only is there room for both traditional knowledge and academic or institutional knowledge in the same conversation, but they can go hand in hand to promote one another and be able to push each system forward,” said Thais, a biological engineering major in CALS.

“A big thing that was instilled in me was a sense of responsibility and kinship with the environment and the community at-large, to treat our lands and waters and surroundings with the same respect and love and care you would treat your own family,” Cline said. “That’s a big part of what’s led me down the path I’ve taken and into this career – is this feeling of responsibility and connection to the earth and a responsibility to contribute to my community.”

Building community

In 2022, AISES-Cornell began collaborating with Cornell Engineering’s admissions team, providing them with guidance on how to respectfully reach out to Indigenous communities that may be wary of outside institutions or that may not see Cornell as a place for them.

Students have since connected directly with prospective and admitted students and represented Cornell at numerous outreach events. And they’ve worked with Cornell Engineering to increase visibility for the robust Indigenous community at Cornell, including the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP), the Akwe:kon Program House, and Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell.

Taylor Heaton '24, of the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and events chair for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, attends an outreach event for prospective Indigenous high school students on March 22.

“Student involvement in outreach for admissions is not just powerful, it’s essential,” said Ginger Jung, assistant director for Cornell Engineering Admissions. “They are having the college experience in real time – they can talk about student and academic life in a way we cannot. And when they share their stories, it creates a lens through which prospective students can see the possibilities for themselves.”

AISES-Cornell works with other partners as well; most recently, on March 22, they teamed with AIISP to connect with and host prospective students at Promising Futures, an annual event to introduce high school students, teachers and counselors to Cornell.

Beyond Cornell, AISES-Cornell has helped establish chapters at other universities and is actively working to strengthen connections in the region. The regional conference held at Cornell in March, overlapping with Promising Futures, brought 125 college and high school students and academic and corporate representatives to campus to discuss the theme of “Sovereignty in Science,” and how research and data can contribute to – and belong to – Indigenous communities. Attending the national AISES conferences each year, with more than 3,000 Indigenous students and professionals, provides an even larger network, and many opportunities for internships, jobs and funding.

“Through AISES, I have this network of Natives in STEM all over the country, at all these different schools, and that’s so valuable,” Heaton said. “And then on campus, I have this closeness and understanding with my peers. It’s pretty awesome.” 

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Lindsey Knewstub