Student Leading Research As An Undergraduate

Going into her senior year as a chemistry major at Northern Arizona University, Ciarra Greene seems like the typical undergraduate student. She loves snowboarding, hanging out with her friends, listening to music and exploring Flagstaff’s local art scene. There is one key difference, however: Greene has already established herself as a bonafide scientific researcher.Ciarra Greene-web230  

Under the guidance of Dr. Jani Ingram, Greene has led a three-year research study aiming to alleviate the harmful effects of uranium mines on the nearby Navajo reservation. This kind of experience is rare for an undergraduate student, Greene says, and it is has given her the valuable experience she needs to accomplish her future research goals.

"I'm the head on the rhamnolipid project—I started on it as a freshman," says Greene. "Usually there's a graduate student or an upperclassman there to show you the ropes—I didn't have anyone. I've definitely had to do a lot of independent learning on the project, but it's been really rewarding being the lead on it from the get-go."

And Greene's work isn't just a lab exercise: She and her team study out in the field, collecting and analyzing soil samples from the nearby Navajo reservation. Their field research is bringing them closer to understanding how to remove uranium from the soil, eliminating the negative effects it brings to humans and the natural environment.

"Right now, all the uranium is getting blown in the dust and into the groundwater; grazing animals are eating the contaminated plants, breathing contaminated air, and drinking contaminated water," Greene says. "The uranium is not really stabilized in the soil. If you put in a certain amount (of the cleaning agent), it can basically reduce the surface tension of the metal, allowing it to dissolve in water…you can actually remove the uranium from the soil."

Though she held a lot of responsibility in leading the uranium project, Greene's work as an undergraduate researcher was supported by the university community. She says her time in Flagstaff brought her 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 has benefited her in many ways—both academically and socially.

"(My participation in the UMEB program) helped me fund and develop my research project. It pretty much forced me to lay out what I was going to do," she says. "We're a pretty diverse group, and everyone brings something different to class each week—not just to always talk about science or our projects, but to take a step back and look at other things in the world. Plus, we're a really close, tight-knit group; it's almost like family."

In addition to uranium research, Greene's undergraduate career consists of participating in many academic conferences by presenting her own research. And during the school year and summers, Greene works as an off-site intern through the Nez Perce Tribe's Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program (ERWM) and the Department of Energy-Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Washington.

Despite her busy schedule, Greene still finds the time to do fun things around Flagstaff.

"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. In Flagstaff, there are many options for entertainment. That's why I like it here so much."

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 and continue to innovate and help people.

"I want to do research on natural roots and medicinal plants that natives use, and do organic chemistry synthesis on those types of molecules, because they have a lot of different properties than over-the-counter medicines," she says. "I need to talk to more people, more elders, so I can see what they think about it. From my perspective, though, as a scientist and a Native, I can't see why you wouldn't want that information shared either way."