How do indigenous students and professionals in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields perceive the various disciplines which they pursue? What inspired them to work in STEM fields? What do their unique experiences and perspectives bring to the table? As an organization involved in science outreach to indigenous communities, BrainReach North interviewed indigenous individuals in STEM, at various stages of their career. We learned about their experiences and now we are sharing their stories with you.
Today we meet Adrian Riives, who is pursuing a PhD in chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
Adrian Riives interview transcript – “Indigenous people are the first scientists in their own right”
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re from?
My name is Adrian Riives, I’m from Edmonton AB, Can. I grew up there but now I’m living in the US doing my Ph.D. in chemistry. My dad is half Ojibwe and my mom is mostly German, I’m kind of mixed myself.
I’m from Edmonton, AB, but I moved to Seattle when I was 4, moved to California when I was 14, lived in Philadelphia for a bit, and now I live in Albany, NY. My dad is from White River, ON, my mom is from Saskatoon, SK.
What are some things that you pursue outside of science?
I think it’s important to have a lot of different interests. For example, I live in the beautiful northeast, and in the summertime it’s green and very outdoorsy. Since I live upstate, there are a lot of things to do. I’m really into anything outdoorsy, I love trying new things. I love travelling, I love food a lot, so I love trying new food. I guess anything that is a new and authentic experience where you get to meet new people, if I’m being honest.
Were you always interested in science? What made you choose chemistry?
It’s funny, when I was younger, I never thought I’d be doing science or anything like that. I never thought I was smart enough because there’s always been this kind of stereotypical, older, male in a lab coat that we think of as science. I don’t think science today is at all like that. But I’ve always loved nature. In high school, I did chemistry, biology, physics, the traditional courses you take in high school, and I had a real knack for chemistry. I liked chemistry.
How has your cultural identity impacted your career path?
I think that your roots are always there even when you are kind of unaware that they’re there. What I like to think about now, whenever I’m at a science conference, especially when I’m at an AISES* conference, they always talk about how Indigenous people were the first scientists in their own right. Because we’ve been around here for tens of thousands of years, during the land bridge, right? And we had farming, we had cultivation, agriculture. We took care of the land. What I’m doing now actually is really interesting, it’s inorganic photochemistry, so it’s basically trying to make dye-sensitized solar cells. It’s all green chemistry, it’s like trying to take the background I have in that and trying to help the environment. I really care about the environment and Mother Nature. Therefore, the research has to be about the things you care about. It’s kind of interesting to have this background in my brain about who I am and who my family is and things I’ve learned. If you talk to any aboriginal person, they will always say their number one concern is the environment, and that factors into everyday life. It’s very subtle but it’s always there. I think cultural identity is always there, whether or not you’re aware of it, I think it really does shape us. It’s a long answer, but I’m still honestly answering it myself. You know, as you get older and you start understanding things about yourself more, your life, who you are. Honestly, I’m still figuring it out myself.
*AISES= American Indian Science and Engineering Society
What is the most fun thing about working or studying in science?
The really nice thing, as one of my friends put so well, academia is this last beautiful bit of time you have to really focus on a problem and understand it, make it your own. The weirdest thing, I think personally, is, when I was younger, I thought I was going to come in and change the world and make a huge impact. But honestly, in 5 years’ time, given the amount of training it’s going to take for you to even get up to snuff, you’re probably not going to change the world. I mean, it’s just the nature of things. But what you can do is, you can take this very small piece of knowledge and you can contribute to a much larger body. It’s a very humbling experience. People who don’t know me very well think, for example, that I feel smart. But the truth is, you never feel smart. You’re still learning and trying to understand the system you’re describing yourself.
What is the hardest thing about studying or working in science?
What you’re doing when you’re doing your research, you guys are the forefront of understanding things. That’s the nature of what research is, and that’s very difficult. The Impostor Syndrome, that’s another huge thing. Basically, everyone everywhere suffers Impostor Syndrome, it’s something I learned, not just students, but honestly professors too. Everyone always feels like they’re not smart enough, they’ve tricked people to get in where they need to go. The whole idea of “fake it till you make it” is a real thing, and I think everyone feels that way.
How have you dealt with or overcome the hardships that you mentioned?
It’s kind of life’s journey and how you get where you get, right? I’m a big believer in positivity. There’s been times in my life where I have not been so positive, and I can tell you that positivity and self-love and giving yourself credit where credit is due. Like if you finish an exam and did well on it, or you finished finals, taking a break and telling yourself you did a good job. I’m also a big believer in exercise. I think exercise really helps. It’s not my emphasis or my forte, but I’m pretty certain there’s a lot of science to back up that exercise really takes care of depression, mental health. Having a big support system, or network of friends and family, who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself is a huge positive. And if you don’t have friends and family, faculty members. When I was in undergrad, I was part of this program called Rise as well as LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation), Rise is a similar program. Because I’m a minority student, I was part of this much larger program. It’s weird, because before I joined this society, I used to be more of a B/C student, and honestly with this much larger organization behind me and people, I became a straight-A student. It’s kind of crazy how much your belief in yourself and having that self-confidence really changes things, and not just grades.
When people are young, they take things really seriously. They think that every small failure is going to be the end of them. I don’t think failure is necessarily failure, it’s just a scar, or a bruise, it’s not the end of the world. I think success is taking failure and turning it into something positive. For example, if you fail on an exam, you just study harder. Next time you do better, or you get more help, or you say maybe I have a problem here that I’m not addressing, that I actually need to address to do better in the future.
What advice would you give your teenage self to help you succeed in your career in STEM?
It’s gonna be okay. That’s my advice. It’s going to be okay, be more gentle on yourself, you’ll be fine. I know people who have kids early on, from 18, I know people who go into the army, I know people who go to school in their 40s, or it can be my mom, who went to law school in her 40s, where she was 20 years older than everyone in her class. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’m kind of like, who am I living my life for? And if it’s not for yourself, then who ARE you living it for? Of course, everyone’s parents expect certain things from them, but at the end of the day, it’s your life. And I think you kind of find what you want to do over time. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. I definitely think when I was younger, I thought I had to have all the answers all the time. It was very draining, you know? It was very impossible to do that. Take every opportunity. I think the most important thing – this sounds so cheesy – but it’s honestly, believe in yourself. When I was younger, I remember immediately being like, I can’t apply there, I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the grades for that, or I’m not capable of that, that’s for smart people. No. What does Wayne Gretzky say? He said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Every internship, every job offer your friend gets, or someone you know gets, isn’t because they’re much more qualified than you, it’s just because they happened to try out for it. Of course, work hard too, but I think a lot of young people are under a lot of stress today, especially, and that whole believing that you’re not smart enough or you don’t belong here, that’s just very commonplace. Especially with globalization and higher competition with jobs, I just say go for it. Believe in yourself and try new things, life is finite, go for it!
Young people are hilarious, they think every small failure is going to be the end of them. I know because I’ve been that person, that’s why I can laugh at it, because I’ve literally been that person. You just think success is one success after another, and it’s not the way things work. There’s a lot of failure, and then you just put your successes on LinkedIn. No one needs to know! No one has to know, right? You’ve got 50 rejections, you’ve got 1 job offer, hey, they only have to know about that one job offer. That’s the way people work in society, right?
I don’t have a lot of answers, but I do think a lot of them are based on going through something difficult – everyone has difficulties in their life – and moving past and being like, you know what? I can tackle that, I probably can do something else too. That’s my belief at least.
Thank you, Adrian, for participating in our “Indigenous Peoples in STEM” interview series and sharing your experiences with us. We have learned a lot from you today and we hope your story will be an inspiration to others.
Interview by Christina
LINKS FOR TEACHERS
Learn more about our bloggers on the "Meet Our Team" page.