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Native Researchers Tackle Environmental Issues At UM

Jade Johnson at work in a UM chemistry lab.
Courtesy Matt Roberts
Jade Johnson at work in a UM chemistry lab.

While Native Americans may be underrepresented in the "hard sciences," Jade Johnson would argue that now, more than ever, Native scientists are needed to make sure environmental issues don’t get swept under the rug or forgotten.

Johnson, a member of Navajo Nation, is an undergraduate chemistry student at San Diego State University. This summer, she’s doing research at the University of Montana. It’s not the first time she’s done something like this.

“I actually did a summer research program in high school," Johnson says. "It was all organic chemistry, and I just enjoyed it a lot. I knew it was going to be hard, but I liked the, kind of the richness I thought it added to life. And then, it wasn’t until like the last couple of years that I’ve been in college that I started to think, 'Wow, I can actually apply this'."

This is Johnson’s second summer at UM.

The 8-week-long, National Science Foundation-funded program pairs Native students with mentors in the Chemistry Department. It gives them hands-on research experience in a lab, and practice presenting their work.

Aaron Thomas is an Associate chemistry professor at UM, and the Director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education; that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

“For me specifically, being Navajo, I want to reach out and give as many opportunities as we can to Native students, both in Montana and outside of our state borders. And really, just looking to show them what’s out there in STEM. It’s not just the classroom. There’s these other type of opportunities for them,” Thomas says.

Jade Johnson is paired with a UM doctoral student who’s also Navajo who’s developing a filter to remove uranium and arsenic from wells on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.

Between 1944 and 1986, mining companies extracted nearly 30 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land to make atomic weapons. At the end of the Cold War, uranium prices dropped, and the companies left behind more than 500 mines.

“Although these mines are abandoned, they’re still a huge contamination issue, just from it leaching into the groundwater," says Johnson. "It’s affected a lot of people on Navajo Nation.”

Many people living near the mines have died of kidney failure and cancer, and research from the CDC shows uranium in babies born now.

Federal agencies and Navajo Nation have been working together to clean up some of the abandoned mines.

“But if there’s even less money going into environmental concerns in the future, then I feel like it could easily be dropped or not completed or forgotten, unless Native people themselves actually worked on it themselves and found their money their own way without having to depend on a Federal government,” says Johnson.

A coalition of local leaders in northern Arizona and southern Utah recently requested the Trump administration lift a 20-year ban on mining near the Grand Canyon.

“Which is actually where my family lives," Johnson says. "So, I do have some concern to continue thinking about water remediation research in my future because it’s literally so close to home, and I just want to make sure that I could do my part."

Johnson and the other students will be presenting their research at 9 a.m. on Friday, July 28 in Chemistry Room 212 on the UM campus. The event is open to the public.

Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
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