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You might not think a pandemic would be the ideal time to connect college students with scientists touting career opportunities at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

You also might not think the USGS would consider it a win if those same students later felt inspired to do similar work closer to home.

Color photo of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute science and technology building sign
The Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) is located in Albuquerque, NM. 

However, you might change your impression if you knew about the USGS-led webinar series for the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, NM, which just finished its second summer of presentations.

The series involves USGS scientists describing research projects with relevance to Native American tribes. This year focused on remote sensing, so presentations ranged from using drones to map sockeye salmon spawning grounds to using satellite data to manage natural resources on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.

Students attending the 2021 sessions also got an introduction to the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center during a presentation about using high-performance cloud computing and the lengthy Landsat archive to help map consumptive water use across the U.S.

The series aims to help SIPI students like Shaleene Chavarria once was—navigating an unfamiliar world of classes and internships as the first person in her Santa Clara Pueblo, NM, family to go to college. Feeling at home in the outdoors, and with memories of forest fires encroaching on her pueblo’s ancestral cliff dwellings and medicinal plants, Chavarria gravitated to a natural resources management degree—and then, unexpectedly, to the USGS and her own webinar presentation.

A Collaboration to Inspire Students

USGS Tribal Partnership Coordinator Monique Fordham worked to develop the webinar series with Dr. Dennis Dye, the coordinator for SIPI’s Geospatial Information Technology (GIT) Program. A collaboration seemed like a natural fit—Dye had worked previously as a USGS research scientist and welcomed the opportunity to build a relationship between the two organizations.

“One of the really major challenges that our student community has, coming often from very rural areas on reservations to the college, is that in many cases, they don’t even know what opportunities are open to them,” Dye said. “So part of our mission here, and certainly in my program, is to do our best to expose them to opportunities—things that they can set as goals for their careers, and things that we here at SIPI can provide a foundation for and launch them in that direction.”

Initially, Fordham had wanted to hold an in-person workshop conducted by Roy Sando, a remote sensing and geographic information system specialist at the USGS Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. In a previous partnership with Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Sando taught geospatial workshops for several years.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came up. “We pivoted, and it turns out it was a very good thing to do,” Fordham said.

“We could, with increased ease, bring scientists from all over the country into the classroom, essentially, to talk about all different types of science careers with the USGS,” she said. USGS human resources specialist Alicia Gomez also described how to search for Federal jobs.

Learning About Landsat

Sando leads a project that uses Landsat satellite data to help estimate consumptive water use in the St. Mary-Milk River basin on the Montana-Canada border, which includes the Blackfeet Nation’s reservation. That work formed the basis of one of the series presentations, which Sando gave with remote sensing specialist Mac Friedrichs, a contractor at USGS EROS. Friedrichs and Dr. Gabriel Senay work with a model that estimates evapotranspiration (ET) to help reveal when, where, and how much water is being used, and Sando has been receiving help from them.

Color photo of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute science and technology building
Dennis Dye’s Geospatial Information Technology Program is located in the Science and Technology building on the SIPI campus.

Students were introduced to the Landsat program, the nearly 50-year archive of data kept at USGS EROS, and the ET model’s applications. Friedrichs related the basics about cloud computing and Google Earth Engine, which he uses extensively. For the St. Mary-Milk River project, he processed more than 30 years of Landsat data—nearly 20,000 30-meter-by-30-meter scenes.

“It’s like the frontier of some of the methods that we’re using. … It’s pretty mind-blowing, the amount of work that you can do in so little time today relative to 20 years ago,” Sando said. “So I wanted Mac to come in and talk about that because he’s been doing a lot of work with that across the entire U.S. with Gabriel Senay.”

Friedrichs said students were curious about not just the data used for the project, but also the scientists’ educational and career backgrounds.

“It’s super gratifying to be able to share our experiences and the work that we do with the youth of today and leaders of tomorrow,” Friedrichs said. “It’s really nice to be able to have these opportunities to relay … what’s out there in terms of resources, and the type of work that goes into remote sensing science for deriving meaningful information that can be applied in various places around the U.S.”

Access to Education and Training for Tribes

SIPI offers certificates and two-year degrees. Some SIPI students enter the workforce afterward, and others go on to complete a four-year degree. Some may choose a Federal career; others may decide to take home what they’ve learned.

“A big part of our mission is to prepare our students to bring skills and knowledge and experience back to the tribe, to serve their tribe,” Dye said.

“Among tribal nations, there’s a tremendous unmet need in terms of access to technology and knowledge and training,” he said. “… Rarely are the tribes looking for someone to come and do things for them. But they are, pretty much across the board, looking for ways to improve their resources to do things themselves. A big part of it is education and training for the tribal members.”

This emphasis helps Fordham select topics relevant to tribes and related to threats to their natural resources. “Getting students interested in science, if they come and spend their life as a career scientist at USGS, that’s a win. But it’s also a win if they go to work for their tribe,” she said.

Helping More Than Her Own Tribe

Color photo of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute science and technology sign
This sign is on the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) campus in Albuquerque, NM.

Chavarria expected to return home and work for her tribal government after earning her associate degree at SIPI. But a desire to learn more and encouragement from her instructors led her to seek a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree, in Earth and planetary sciences.

She learned about the USGS during a career fair at SIPI. When it was time to think about internships, a USGS student position caught her eye. She started out scanning papers every day for a large archival project, but that led to work as a student technician, where she learned technical and field skills. Now, Chavarria works as a hydrologist—with watershed models and climate projections—on projects and training that can involve tribes across New Mexico. “It’s great because it’s helping not just my tribe. It’s all of the different people that we work with,” she said.

Another focus of Chavarria’s diverse workload at the New Mexico Water Science Center in Albuquerque is outreach, particularly to underrepresented communities. Her presentation to SIPI students during the 2020 webinar series covered both hydrology and her path from SIPI to the USGS. She enjoys giving presentations to children, too.

“Our children are going to be our future stakeholders. In my opinion, it’s important to try to give them the knowledge and get them into science as early as possible and teach them about things as early as you can so that they know what’s going on—they know where their water comes from, they know how their water gets dirty, how their water gets clean,” Chavarria said.

Students aren’t the only ones learning. Sando has gained new perspectives from working with tribal students. “There’s a lot we can learn from the tribes in the ways they think about the environment. One of the things I’ve learned is to reframe the way I approach environmental studies as a more holistic endeavor.”

“I try to think of water now as just one piece. You have to look at the whole basin and the way the entire ecosystem works, not necessarily just whether or not there’s water in the stream.”

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