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.
In our next installment of “Indigenous Peoples in STEM” interviews, we meet Jenna Barnhardt, a 4th year student at Ryerson University studying Biomedical Science. Jenna shares with us an inspirational story about how science, to her, represents a second chance and an opportunity to make an impact in her own community. We learn that the road to science isn’t always unswerving and that the scenic stops along the way (like building your own business) can offer some invaluable perspective. Without further ado, here’s Jenna.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What are you studying? What are your hobbies, interests?
I'm from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario - Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Iroquoian tribe and I am turtle clan. Both my parents are Mohawk. I am currently doing my undergraduate degree studying Biomedical Science at Ryerson University, and I am going into my 4th year in September 2019. I have also completed a minor in Psychology and a Certificate Diploma in Mental Health & Addictions. My hope is to go into graduate studies in Neuroscience with a focus on cognition/behaviour/thinking/mental illness/psychology/psychiatry etc. I haven't decided specifically which area I'll go into, or if I will end up applying to medical school or not, but I hope to do something in those types of areas of research and Neuroscience studies.
I am crafty, I enjoy knitting and fibre arts like cross-stitch, sewing, and beading. I have my own business called "Yarnhardts" where I sell my knitting creations and employ others and sell their products too. I participate in mostly craft shows in my hometown. And in that area, most of my crafts have a Native influence. You can see them on any social media platform if you search "Yarnhardts."
I am interested in outreach and promoting science education and knowledge translation to anyone interested in science, but now I have focused more on Indigenous people. I worked as a technical consultant for Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SRED) for almost 7+ years where I worked with engineers, scientists, and doctors to optimize their projects for funding and investment purposes. I worked on writing reports and applications on behalf of my clients for various types of funding to support their projects and this involved a substantial amount of knowledge translation for purposes of funding. Now I enjoy general knowledge translation and teaching/explaining science concepts/myths/new ideas to people who are interested.
I love animals! I have an orange cat named Beans, and a Basset Hound named Billie. They keep me on my toes!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words or less?
What does science mean to you?
I started out in my life as a model and I started my first undergraduate degree in Fashion. When I realized that path was not for me, I felt like I wasted a huge part of my life, ruined my academic career, and was too old to start over. I had a connection that gave me a unique opportunity to write for and support technical consultants/professionals (engineers, doctors, scientists, etc.). In the beginning I was essentially just being dictated material to write up how my bosses wanted and to edit their complicated reports. But as I started reading what the reports were about, I became very interested in science in general. As I worked my way up and eventually became a professional technical consultant myself, I gained lots of invaluable experience in many different areas of research, which allowed me to narrow down my interests. These came down to: Astrophysics or Neuroscience. In my late 20s I made the extremely difficult decision to go back to university, and take a shot at my dreams in science but it meant I had to start from the bottom and do a brand new undergraduate degree (which I am doing now). That was Fall of 2017 and I am on track to finish my 4-year BSci Undergraduate Degree in only 3 years.
So what I'm saying is, science, to me, means a second chance. It gave me an opportunity to explore what I love, do something interesting with my future, and give my career real meaning. Science has allowed me to learn more about who I am as an Indigenous person by being more involved with my community, doing outreach, doing knowledge translation, and teaching what I know to people who never had that opportunity as I was once in their shoes. Growing up I never saw any part of STEM being a possible career option for me and to give other people that opportunity means everything.
How did you get interested in science? What motivates you to continue pursuing it?
I think I kind of touched on these questions in my previous answer but it's all part of my story. I fell into science unknowingly at a point in my life where I felt useless and alone and that fostered my interest.
My motivation to continue to be involved in science and make science part of my life is the need for knowledge translation. There is so much misinformation in a world where information is so easily accessible that there has been a huge demand for people who can take all of this amazing research that’s happening and translate it to something meaningful for everyone else. We live in a digital age where information can get twisted, and meanings can be lost with propaganda and agendas that do not favour the science community. The need for knowledge translation is higher than before. Indigenous people have been particularly susceptible to this.
Who is your inspiration? Why?
I have many inspirations that I don't know if I could choose a single one. In my personal life my greatest inspiration is my mother and all of my aunts who taught me how to be a strong and capable woman. They have always supported everything I do and they have shown me themselves that they can do anything. As Indigenous women growing up in the time that they have, they overcame a lot, and I will always be inspired by the Indigenous women who have faced adversity and came out stronger than ever.
How has your cultural identity impacted your career (or education) path?
My aboriginal identity impacted my career by further encouraging my passion for outreach and knowledge translation. As well as the need for improved and sophisticated mental health services for Indigenous people in Canada. Right now there is a scarcity of professionals that know how to treat Indigenous mental health issues, especially with extensive knowledge of the brain. There's so much potential for discovery of a community that needs the help more than ever.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in pursuing science? How have you dealt with and/or overcome them?
Being an older, Indigenous, female in STEM comes with a fair share of challenges. I became very aware of this when the consulting firm I worked at had no women in the technical professional roles and the only woman in an office of approximately 30-50 people were in HR, finance, and administrative roles. I had never become that 'aware' that I was a female until I was placed in a technical role surrounded by males. It was challenging in that no one took me seriously, my work was often double and triple checked even when nobody else's was, I received smaller projects and smaller value clients, I was paid significantly less than my male counterparts, and I was ridiculed for not understanding things that were out of scope for my education level at the time (few years of university in Fashion and a few years in Business, so complex engineering concepts were not familiar to me, but expected). I found a lot of solace in my clients. The office was often a toxic environment but getting out into the real world with my huge selection of clients was a breath of fresh air. I was always welcomed by everyone, I always had positive feedback (from my bosses about my work - everyone loved me), and my clients were always doing very interesting work that they were eager to talk about. This also encouraged me to pursue science and do this work on my own, as I always had good ideas to discuss with them with good feedback that was exciting to me. So this helped me deal with my office environment not being a great place to be. Slowly, the female representation did increase in more technical roles in that office and now I think they have a few females who are working in my old position.
When I came to Ryerson in 2017 things were very much more diverse, we are seeing a lot more females in science, and there's a lot more female role models as well. However, Indigenous representation in STEM is still very very limited and the search for role models is definitely challenging. I'm trying my best to improve that situation and be out as a role model for anybody (youth or adult) who's interested in STEM. The problem with the Indigenous community in general is that they have issues trusting outside concepts and 'colonial' ideas are almost always a threat to them. So knowledge translation within and to the community can be challenging for someone who is not sensitive to that or is a part of the community themselves. Even within the individual Indigenous communities there's a lot of resistance if you are not 'one of them' which is something that needs to change. Luckily the youth are very receptive to this and more and more communities are working together to build each other up and help each other out. The Indigenous people of Canada have gone through a horrific history that has consequences that trickle down and reach everyone within that community (myself not excluded), therefore I am constantly trying to set an example and be a role model for anyone in my community or anyone who has faced similar issues within these communities.
What advice, if any, would you give to your younger self in terms of pursuing science?
Don't be so hard on yourself. The path I originally chose wasn't the right one for several reasons, but I wouldn't have any regrets about doing it and I would do it all again.
Thank you, Jenna, for sharing your experiences with us. We can say with confidence that you are a role model not only to individuals within your community, but to all individuals wondering if science is for them. We wish you the best of luck as you continue on your journey into STEM.
Interview by Roni
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