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Finding Community in Science

As an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University Ciarra Greene became a highly accomplished researcher. Since her freshman year, for instance, she served as the team leader on a project that seeks to mitigate the negative effects of uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. According to Greene, this kind of experience is rare for an undergraduate student. But, she says, it is has given her valuable experience for the future.

"I was the lead student researcher on the rhamnolipid project—I started on it as a freshman," says Greene. "The project looks at how biosurfactants can be used to clean up uranium in the soil. I hadn't thought about it, but Dr. Jani Ingram, who has been my mentor, pointed out that taking the lead on a project as a freshman is rare. Usually there is a graduate student or an upperclassman there to show you the ropes—I didn’t have anyone.” This opportunity provided Greene with a platform to practice the scientific method on an advanced level, gain technical skills, and develop into a mature researcher.

And Greene's work wasn't just a lab exercise; rhamnolipid biosurfactants have the potential to detoxify massive amounts of uranium contamination. She and her team collected and analyzed soil, water, plant, and livestock samples from the nearby Navajo reservation. The project aimed to understand the negative effects of uranium contamination on humans and the natural environment.

"Right now, all the uranium is being transferred in the environment by wind, groundwater, and animals," Greene says. The biosurfactant she investigated stabilizes the uranium in the soil and reduces the surface tension of the uranium, which increases dissolution of the uranium in a process called leaching. "If the drained liquid can be collected and treated, you can actually remove the uranium from the soil, a bioremediation technique known as ‘pump and treat.’”

Greene's undergraduate career wasn't just about uranium research, however. She participated in multiple academic conferences, where she presented on various topics, including her own research. She also served as a regional and national student representative with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Additionally, Greene took advantage of internship opportunities, including ones with the Department of Energy and Nez Perce Tribe’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program, where she developed K-12 lesson plans, and another with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Finding success in the community

Greene's work as an undergraduate researcher didn't happen in a vacuum, though. She says that her time in Flagstaff brought an invaluable community experience, especially through her participation in the university's Undergraduate Mentoring in Environmental Biology (UMEB) program. As one of a handful of funded undergraduate researchers, Greene says this program helped her in many ways.

“The UMEB program not only funded my research, but assisted in the development of my project through many facets,” she says. "We're a diverse group and everyone brings something different to class each week—not just to talk about science or our projects, but to take a step back and look at other things in the world. Plus, we were a close, tight-knit group; it was almost like family."

Green says Northern Arizona University and the Flagstaff community provided her with an academic and social environment where she has been able to reach a high level of success. "I'm from an area about the same size as Flagstaff, but there's a lot more community involvement here," she says. "I love how there's the art walk and activities on the square, and concerts all the time. Back where I'm from, if you don't have kids who are into sports, there's really not much to do. In Flagstaff, there are many more options for entertainment. That's why I like it here so much."

Looking toward the future

In graduate school, Greene says she would like to combine her love of chemistry with her deep sense of allegiance to her tribe. Her goal is to build on her undergraduate training to increase Native American interest in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields while encouraging them to use their culture as a driving force. 

Next fall, Greene will enroll at the University of Idaho, where she will teach youth about environmental science as a master’s student studying natural resources, something Greene says “couldn’t be a better fit for my future goals.” Greene says her career options include working as an informal educator, a professor, school advisor, or serving on her Tribe’s Executive Committee.