Indigenous women find their stride in physics

Los Alamos partnerships with Fort Lewis College and Navajo Technical University pave a new path into the world of research

February 14, 2024

From left to right, Elaina Saltclah, Los Alamos graduate student Bade Sayki and Arielle Platero, a member of the first cohort of Indigenous Women in Physics pilot program and now in graduate school.

Elaina Saltclah, from the Red Mesa, Arizona area, near the Four Corners, first introduces herself in her native Navajo language, including the names of her clans. A Fort Lewis College student majoring in physics, with a minor in mathematics, and a young mother, Saltclah speaks with a self-assured smile, her confidence bolstered through participation in a novel program connecting students like her with a future in the daunting world of physics research.

“What made me interested in physics is simple curiosity into something ordinary, like the stars, or gravity,” Saltclah explained. “That fundamental curiosity about why things are the way they are is what drove me to the field.”

Our everyday experience of the stars or gravity belies the complex physics that underpins the mysteries of such phenomena and how they behave. And Saltclah, within the unique physics education partnership between Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and Los Alamos National Laboratory that has her traveling to work on advanced experiments and conduct research with Los Alamos physicists, is now deep into studying those mysteries, such as the nature of quark-gluon plasma, which formed the universe in its first microseconds after the Big Bang.

Her dream of becoming a physicist is nearer than she might ever have expected.

Engaging Indigenous women in physics

Initiated two years ago as a pilot program, an effort to bring undergraduate Indigenous women into physics has blossomed into a steady source of physics education and opportunities. Now in its third year, the “Engaging Indigenous Women in Nuclear Physics” program has grown to include four Fort Lewis College students, Saltclah among them, with Los Alamos National Laboratory partnering to provide mentorship and research with cutting-edge experiments. Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, is also developing a complementary physics education and research program.

“Indigenous women are the minority of the minority when it comes to physics,” said Cesar Luis da Silva, principal investigator for the project and a particle physicist at Los Alamos. “So, giving women the chance to get in touch with science is important to me. The idea of this program is to show that nuclear physics is something they can pursue and be a part of.”

Research experience and mentorship

The four current students come from across the Four Corners region. With the other students in the program, Saltclah’s internship with the Laboratory includes ongoing mentorship from Physics division researchers at Los Alamos, an individual research project and opportunities such as giving a talk at a recent conference of the American Physical Society, a leading physics association. In the summer of 2023, she traveled to Brookhaven National Laboratory to get connected with a detector system that provides data she’s using in her research project studying quark-gluon plasma. After she completes her bachelor’s degree, she plans to continue her journey toward a career as a physicist with graduate education.

“Before this experience, I thought my dream of becoming a physicist was a pipe dream,” said Saltclah. “But this has helped build my confidence. I see this program leading to a better future for me and my son.”

Unique research opportunities are also a cornerstone of the program. Growing up in the Window Rock, Arizona, area on the Navajo Nation, Fort Lewis physics major and Diné tribe member Victoria Nofchissey loved Albert Einstein and gravitated toward physics textbooks as a teenager.

“I’ve always had a passion for physics, but growing up, I didn’t know pursuing STEM was feasible,” Nofchissey said, referring to fields in science, technology, engineering and math. “I didn’t even know I could go to college.”

In summer 2023, having been connected with the program through Laurie Williams, professor of physics and engineering at Fort Lewis College, Nofchissey was able to travel with Los Alamos physicists to the Center for European Research (CERN) in Switzerland, one of the world’s premier physics laboratories and the home of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator.

At CERN, Nofchissey had the opportunity to meet physicists from all over the world. She took a shift managing data from the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment, which studies a type of particle called a beauty quark to understand the differences between matter and antimatter — an example of nuclear physics research into the fundamental nature of the universe. That experience, along with her research into the hypothetical particles known as “glueballs,” has spurred her to work toward a career in physics research, in a laboratory like CERN or elsewhere.

“I definitely feel more heard as a person as a result of this program,” said Nofchissey. “It’s really important to have Indigenous representation in STEM. I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and as I go on in my education and career, I’d like to inspire them.”

Other students currently in the program include Jade Martinez and Gwendolyn Tsosie; Martinez is working on artificial intelligence to find isolated photons produced in heavy ion collisions, and Tsosie is contributing to the mechanical design of the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment detector.

Building on success

The pilot program started in fall 2021 with two Fort Lewis College students, providing each with a mentorship, an internship and the chance to do research at CERN.

One student from that pilot cohort, Arielle Platero, finished her bachelor’s degree and is now in a graduate mechanical engineering program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Another student, Julie Napora, is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe who was born in Shiprock, New Mexico, and grew up in Farmington, New Mexico. Napora finished her bachelor’s degree in May 2023 is now an employee at the Laboratory, working as a post-baccalaureate researcher in the Nuclear and Particle Physics group in the Physics division.

Julie Napora conducting laboratory research.

“I grew up in a small town, and I didn’t know any physicists,” said Napora. “I didn’t think I had a place in this field, or that there was room for someone like me. When I received this internship, I put a lot of heart and everything I had into it because the success of this program meant that other Indigenous women would get this opportunity. This program has been by far the most influential thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

As a Los Alamos researcher now, Napora is studying how quarks and gluons — subatomic particles known as building blocks for larger protons and neutrons — behave and interact to form visible matter. She recently had a paper accepted for publication at a leading peer-reviewed journal and plans to continue to build her career in physics at the Laboratory or at an institution like CERN.

New partnership with Navajo Tech

This fall da Silva partnered with Abraham Meles, associate professor at Navajo Technical University, to offer a similar physics pipeline opportunity at the tribal university. The “Bringing Experimental High-energy Nuclear Physics to Navajo Nation” program seeks to promote careers in physics (for men and women, in this case) through mentorship and experimental opportunities and also train students to deal with contamination from abandoned uranium mines in Navajo country.

The Laboratory will help outfit Navajo Tech lab spaces with radiation detectors for physics experiments and create a detector assembly lab for a particle tracker to be installed at a CERN experiment. Navajo Tech students will travel to CERN to participate in the research there as the first Indigenous college to participate in a major, international high-energy physics collaboration.

For da Silva, the benefit of these kind of partnerships is anything but one-way.

“Often when we talk about science we have a narrow view,” he said. “The students in these programs may have a different view of the universe, which can enlarge our science perspective and impact the kind of questions we pursue and how we think about the answers.”

The Fort Lewis College program is supported by the Department of Energy Office of Science Nuclear Physics program. The Navajo Technical University partnership is funded by the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Funding for Accelerated, Inclusive Research program.