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 Madeline Yaaka, a first year Bachelor of Science student in biology at Queen’s University, to learn more about Indigenous student life, their inspirations, and the challenges they face on their path towards a career in STEM.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, and where you’re from?
My name is Madeline Yaaka. I have just completed my first year at Queen’s University in Kingston. I am working towards my Bachelor of Science in biology. My goal is to eventually apply to medical school. I am an 18-year-old inuk from Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik.
What does science mean to you?
Science means being curious about day to day life as well as trying to understand how the world around us works. There are both micro and macro questions to explore, from how flies impact their environment, to explaining how life on earth came to be. For me, science means being open to new ideas and sharing knowledge with others.
You are pursuing a degree in Biology. Were you always interested in biology? What made you choose this particular area of science?
Well, from a young age, my family and I would go camping and hunting, so I had many opportunities to learn about plants and animals. After a successful hunt, I would help my father butcher our catch for later consumption. I was always curious about the function of different organs and would examine them carefully, asking a lot of questions. I think that is why I am choosing to major in biology because I enjoy the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of the relationships between different species and their environments.
Do you have any inspirations from the STEM world?
There is no one specific person who inspires me in the STEM world. However, seeing indigenous students making progress through research and experimentation while incorporating traditional knowledge really inspires me to keep pursuing my education in the sciences.
Did you have anyone from outside the world of STEM who you were motivated by, in your childhood?
Yes, my parents were my most influential teachers growing up.
Can you share with us, some experiences you had, while growing up with your parents and what they taught you?
My late father was raised with a traditional Inuit lifestyle, so he was able to share his knowledge about hunting, camping and the importance of respecting the environment with me. My non-Inuk mother encouraged me to continue my education after high school. I was able to upgrade in Ontario by staying with members of her family. My time spent in Ontario helped me acquire the credits I needed to apply to post-secondary studies.
What are some other ways in which your cultural identity has impacted your career path?
The Inuit culture has a deep-rooted relationship with science. The knowledge that is still shared today has been passed down from generation to generation. The Inuit people successfully survived in one of the harshest environments on the planet, making them experts on their own land. Through adaptation and ingenuity, they improved methods of hunting and transportation over time. Stories I grew up hearing from elders about climate change are in fact, supported by western science. I find it quite fascinating which is why I enjoy studying science, since it makes the most sense to me.
What do you think is one of the hardest things about studying in STEM areas?
The hardest thing I’ve come across about studying science till now, has been keeping up with school-work. There are many assignments on top of readings to keep track of that can be hard to manage sometimes.
How do you keep track of all the schoolwork?
Having a calendar in my dorm room helps me keep up with upcoming due dates and tests throughout the year. Using these, I learned to best organize my time and my schedule and my time.
What is one of the most fun things about studying science?
I think one of the most fun things about studying science is being able to understand how things are constantly affecting each other. My favourite course last semester was Introduction to Organisms, which focussed on how parasites interact with their hosts. I learned to rethink how species in the Arctic environment are constantly impacting each others’ lifecycles, including our own.
Have you faced any challenges while being a STEM student?
I struggled with being home sick for the first few months while living away from my community. I missed traditional food and speaking my first language, Inuktitut.
How do you deal with the homesickness?
What really helped me was reaching out and attending programs which were aimed at connecting Indigenous students. I was able to attend conferences where I met people with similar experiences. Knowing that I was not alone as an indigenous student pursuing a post secondary education was quite comforting. Also, my mom sent me a supply of arctic char and caribou which was nice to have once in a while. When I miss speaking Inuktitut, I tend to listen to music or I call up a friend from home and talk for a bit.
What advice would you give your teenage self to help you overcome other
challenges and succeed in your STEM career?
I would tell myself to make more time for friends and stress-relieving activities. Finding a balance between academics and self care is very important. I spent a lot of time worrying about assignments and exams due to a lack of confidence in my own abilities. I felt that I was at a disadvantage coming from a small, isolated community where education levels and standards are lower compared to the south. However, through hard work and determination, I was able to overcome these challenges and succeed.
Are there any stress-busting activities you like to pursue in your free time?
I enjoy playing many sports such as hockey, volleyball and rock climbing. When I have some free time, I also like to sew traditional clothing such as parkas, sealskin boots and mittens. I try to take at least a two-hour break every day to do one of these activities in the evening.
Thank you, Madeline, 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 other youth.
Interview by Dhruv
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