Frank Telles holding laptop computer while doing dust and drought research at study site. Frank Telles holding laptop computer while doing dust and drought research at study site.
Science & Discovery 

Finding a research home at NAU

CEFNS Climate and Environmental Change climate change dust and drought project Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability Indigenous Paleoclimate Dynamics Laboratory STEM

Indigenous geologist, former “freeway flyer,” and high school earth science teacher Frank Telles settles down at NAU to earn his PhD.

NAU graduate student Frank Telles has more hands-on knowledge about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education than most people. With multiple degrees and nearly 17 years of experience teaching science to students across the globe, his résumé is impressive, to say the least.

While teaching at a public school in Harlem, a student got him thinking about the next step in his career. “During a lesson on social justice and the sciences, my students calculated how many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) faculty are in the earth sciences at ten nationally recognized universities,” Telles says. “They calculated that less than 0.3 percent of the science faculty apparently come from underrepresented groups. One of the students pointed out, ‘You’re asking us to pursue a career in the earth sciences, but you are not a faculty member at one of those universities.’ That student was not wrong—and I pondered about that.”

Decreasing school enrollment during the pandemic gave him an additional reason to seek an advanced degree. He is now enrolled in the Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability PhD program with geosciences Associate Professor Nick McKay as his advisor. This program allows Telles to study the impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples and continue with his passion for teaching STEM.

Pursuing a career in STEM

Of Apache and Salvadoran heritage, Telles was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His father passed away when he was still a child. To help support his family, Telles started working on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards selling tourist maps to the stars’ homes. “Fortunately, my employer at the time was a teacher, and he dedicated part of his time to tutor me,” Telles says.

Telles is the first on his father’s side of the family to graduate from high school, and he earned a bachelor’s in geology from UCLA and a master’s in geology from California State University, Northridge.

For the next ten years, he joined the ranks of the “freeway flyers,” one of hundreds of highly educated academics in Southern California scrambling for employment as adjunct instructors among the many community colleges in the region in hopes of earning a full-time, tenure-track position. “After a decade of driving the freeways, I decided to improve my pedagogical skills and become a public school teacher because I enjoyed teaching. I wanted to inspire the next generation of geoscientists, especially those of the BIPOC community,” Telles says.

To support this new goal, Telles received a master’s in teaching earth science from The American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “Soon after graduating, I began working as an earth science teacher at a Title I high school in Harlem,” Telles says. “This is where my students, other teachers, and the principal noticed my passion for teaching.”

During the pandemic, the number of students in his classes plummeted. With more time to consider how he could make an impact on science education, Telles decided to pursue the next step in his teaching career.

Climate change project

Outstretched hand holding dry soil.

While searching online, Telles found McKay’s research project on Southwest dust and drought, and decided to enroll at NAU for his PhD. Telles will be on a team investigating the role of atmospheric dust in climate change, particularly in the Four Corners region, which affects many Indigenous peoples, including the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Zuni tribes.

“I joined the dust project because it will enable me to connect to my heritage and the Indigenous communities in the region. The project aligns more closely with my educational prospects. My scientific research on dust is not something exotic that I could introduce to local students and teachers. They live in it,” he says.

Telles is in NAU’s interdisciplinary PhD program in Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, which aims to train independent, integrative, and innovative researchers in earth sciences, climate change, ecology and conservation, social sciences, and engineering. His emphasis is Climate and Environmental Change. In the Paleoclimate Dynamics Laboratory, McKay’s team studies “natural climate variability in places ranging from the tropics to the arctic, on timescales ranging from years to millennia, and on spatial scales ranging from meters to hemispheres.”

“During my time at NAU,” Telles explains, “I plan to create a science curriculum under the established framework of place-based education, relevance to students’ lives, and guided by state and national standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards. 

“Ultimately, my career goal is to serve the educational and scientific needs of Indigenous communities while pursuing my scientific research interests in the science of climate change and public school science education.” 

 Finding a support team

Telles will bring his years of valuable experience with him as he continues in education, to the benefit of his future students. As an Indigenous student himself, he said his connection to a tribe taught him how to better investigate and network with other Indigenous people from around the world who are facing the same problems.

“My advice to other Indigenous students is to seek a support network that will engage, collaborate, and push you toward to success regardless of career objectives,” he says. “In terms of STEM, look for people who are as passionate about the career you want to pursue, look for STEM support systems and groups, and hopefully, they can guide you in the right direction.”