BIPOC Voices: Interview with Wendy Smythe


June 21st, 2021

Author: Wendy F. Smythe, Ph.D. (K’ah skaahluwaa) Xaadas Nation (Haida). Ga gúudaas gúust uu díi k’wáalaagang (Eagle Moiety) of the Sdast’as clan (Fish egg house).


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Were there early experiences that sparked your interest in STEM, and ultimately your career path?

I have always existed in what academia refers to as “the field”; however, it wasn’t known as this disconnected and disembodied place to collect data, rather the field was just where I lived and was thought of as the place where our ancestors brought us to survive, a place with abundant resources. We were to be caretakers of the land, water, and air and in return these three beings would take care of us. There were then and still are today the concepts of relationality and reciprocity. Take only what is needed and return what is not to the water and land. Today you will still see the nanas going outside after dinner to feed the ravens and eagles, because one should not waste but share what is left over with our relatives, human and animal. (Photo of iron carbonate deposits in southeast Alaska near Dr. Smythe’s tribal community of Hydaburg, AK)

My youth was spent on the shore of a rocky beach looking for animals in tidepools, chipping away at the soft black rock (phyllite) and examining the alternating white bands of quartz, or sitting beside a stream writing poetry about the environment in which I was immersed, trying to find the words to describe the curves carved in the flowing water as its gentle shaping force concealed the life below. The annual routine of exploring the dense mossy forest in search of various types of roots, fiddleheads, berries, mushrooms, devil’s club, and more to preserve for the winter: these activities were the norm and I looked forward to them. I spent a lot of time at the dock hanging over the side, peering into the water to examine the life below. Today when I go home, I tend to spend hours at the dock consuming the peace and beauty of the place our ancestors brought us to have a better life and find myself filled with gratitude and peace. Peering into the water, one may be lucky enough to spot a meandering shrimp or two crawling along the kelp below, or a school of small fry darting by searching for a bite to eat while trying to avoid being the next meal for a larger fish. One can spend countless hours watching the gentle sway of the green and pink anemone affixed to the underside of the dock, life mostly unnoticed by many. I remember swimming in the cold water trying to catch needlefish and proudly surfacing in time to catch my chanáa [grandfather] walking home from his fishing boat to show him what I found below, and his words “aren’t you cold, you’re crazy” as he smiled and continued his walk home.

            The most enjoyable thing I remember, wish for, and miss, was walking in the rain and feeling the coolness bathing my face. It was only after I left Alaska to attend college that it became evident how “different” this lifestyle was from other people’s way of life. How connected I was to nature and how it was connected to me. The normalcy of this upbringing unknowingly set the stage for my life as a geoscientist, oceanographer, and environmental scientist. How does one disaggregate the connectedness of the world apart from a single discipline? How do we reconcile the siloed western scientific systems into our relational identity where we are one with the air, land, and water and all things upon and within these environments? The journey for knowledge has brought me from an interconnected way of life to a sometimes mentally, emotionally, and physically destructive existence within academia. The destruction could have been catastrophic, but a choice was made, a lesson learned. I decided that I would maintain and honor the duality of my identity as a Haida woman and as a scientist. Díi hlangwáay tla kíiya ‘l’áaygaagang (I am a master observer of the world, or I am a Haida scientist).

Your lab’s research is on geomicrobiology. How do you describe that discipline to those who aren’t familiar with it?


Áajii wáadluwáan uu gúu daahl kíiwaagang. Now everything is related (connected).

Geoscience considers all influences on an ecosystem, looking at geology’s impacts on water chemistry, and chemistry’s impacts on biology and everything in between. To me it is very much like the holistic nature of Traditional Knowledge, which also considers the many influences on ecosystems as well as the spirituality of all things. (Photo of close up of iron carbonate deposits in southeast Alaska)

Are there applications of geomicrobiology that hold promise for addressing environmental or climate issues?

Yes, the research we are doing in manganese oxidizing hotsprings has led us to discover hyperthermophilic manganese oxidizing microorganisms. These microorganisms use enzymes to oxidize manganese, and the exciting thing is that the enzymes are stable at very high temperatures and once identified and characterized might have applications for environmental remediation technologies.

This year, you founded the Indigenous Geoscience Community (IGC). Tell us about the goals and charge of the organization.
The goal of IGC is to create a secure space for all Indigenous geoscientists to come together in a supportive and collaborative network of scholars and to celebrate the diversity within Indigenous groups. The network will host pre-conference events to provide opportunities for new collaborations, build peer support networks, provide professional development, and create mentor networks, with the guidance of an Indigenous Advisory Board and Council of Elders from across Indigenous communities. The first IGC meeting and launch of IGC will be at the AISES National Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in September 2021. The second meeting will be at the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting in Portland, Oregon, in October 2021.

You’re on the board of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). Can you tell us about that organization and the conference that is coming up in September?
AISES is dedicated to supporting Indigenous STEM scholars across all career levels and sectors. The organization supports students through scholarships, professional development opportunities, and career opportunities, by providing mentorship for students and more. In addition, AISES supports STEM scholars across a broad range of industry by providing entrepreneurial opportunities, collaborating with industry, and connecting Indigenous STEM scholars with industry partners.
            The upcoming AISES National Conference will be held in Phoenix, AZ, September 23-25, and will be an opportunity for Indigenous STEM scholars to reconnect in person after COVID. It is important for our people to be together to share, heal, and enjoy being together in a safe academic space, something that many take for granted.

You’re also the editor of an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education on Voices Integrating Culture in the Earth Sciences. Tell us what kinds of articles you are looking for.
JGE publishes a variety of geoscience education manuscripts, such as research, literature reviews, curriculum and instruction articles, and commentaries. This issue will provide a space for the authentic voices of underrepresented geoscience educators and researchers as they submit papers from a variety of diverse perspectives. The issue is unique in that it provides a space for diverse scholars. Personally, I am excited about this issue; it took a year from proposing the issue to receiving final approval. In this effort I was supported and guided by many colleagues whom I consider family. It will be exciting to see the variety of projects and innovative methods our geoscience colleagues are engaged in and the difference they are making in the lives of students and communities.

Do you have any thoughts or recommendations for those who design or study informal STEM learning activities and settings for how to inspire the sense of wonder and connectedness that you so vividly described in your early experiences with nature?

Yes. Simply put, we get so focused on our research that we forget to stop, take a step back, and remember what excites us about science. What excites you will connect with others. Use your passion and you will make positive changes in the lives of others through informal STEM.


A selection of Dr. Smythe’s related scholarship and presentations:

Smythe, W.F., Clarke, J.B., Hammack, R., and Poitra, C. (2020). Native perspectives about coupling Indigneous traditional knowledge with western science in geoscience education from a focus group study. Global Research in Higher Education 3(2).

Poitra, C, Smythe, W.F., and Tyler, Q. (2020). Honoring the Whole Student Workbook: Developing Space for Native American Students in STEM by Supporting Complex Identities.

Dzombak, R. Indigenous geoscientists reflect on inclusivity in academia. November 5, 2020.

Smythe, W.F., Hugo, R.C., and McAllister, S. (2017). Incorporation of traditional knowledge into geoscience education: An effective method of Native American instruction. Journal of Sustainability Education.