Drawn in by outreach
The summer leadership institute offered by SACNAS, an organization focused on the advancement of Hispanic, Chicano and Native American scientists, promised to help Wilson and the other 29 participants find out how they could engage underrepresented minorities in science. For Wilson, it did much more.
“My career came to a crossroads,” he explains. “I was wondering whether it was more beneficial for me to be the lone Native American scientist doing elite research at the government or whether it was more important for me to help promote opportunities and share my experiences with upcoming Natives who were going through the same struggles.” It was a difficult decision. For eight months, Wilson weighed his options, consulting with investigators at NIH, his family and his friends. Then he took a leap of faith, again.
Settling in at SACNAS
For the past 15 months, Wilson has been director of Native American initiatives at SACNAS, a job that involves creating programming that builds young Native Americans’ research and professional skills. The three primary challenges faced by young Native Americans considering careers in science, Wilson said, are accessibility to information, family support and access to minority mentors at all levels.
One program Wilson helped spearhead is set to launch this fall at Oklahoma State University. It’s called Science Scholars: The Native American Path, or SSNAP. “We want to target Native Americans in a cohort approach,” he explains, “so we are selecting 30 (undergraduate) students who are in biomedical sciences.” OSU was chosen for its record number of Native American students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in the sciences.
Wilson has teamed up with bacteriologist Gilbert John at OSU, who also is a Navajo, to create a curriculum covering lab work, oral and poster presentations, and negotiations and queries for funding and employment opportunities. He’s also working closely with another new hire at SACNAS, physicist Yvonne Rodriguez, who oversees the society’s programming. Wilson emphasizes that he doesn’t want the OSU effort – or any of the SACNAS efforts, for that matter – to be just another program that sounds nice in principle but doesn’t have measureable results.
“We want to produce more outcome-based programming,” he says. “Being scientists, that’s what we’re all about.”