Helping Nurture STEM Talent Inspires Harvard Administrator - Higher Education


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Helping Nurture STEM Talent Inspires Harvard Administrator

by Mary Annette Pember

Reared on the small Navajo reservation town of Naschitti in New Mexico, Dr. LeManuel “Lee” Bitsóí “grew up around science without calling it science.”

He learned a great deal from his mother, whom he describes as an ethnobotanist who was able to identify and collect plants to use as food and medicine for her children and the family’s animals.

Although he didn’t learn the Western scientific terms for the plants his mother collected, illnesses she cured or weather systems she observed, this experiential form of teaching had an indelible impact on Bitsóí. It inculcated him with the belief that, although American Indians and members of other ethnic groups might approach science and learning in non-Western ways, their knowledge is valid and worthy of note within the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

Today, as director of the Minority Action Plan Program at the Center of Excellence in Genomic Sciences at Harvard Medical School, Bitsóí routinely calls upon the knowledge he gained through his mother’s traditional Navajo teaching methods. He says American Indians have a great deal to contribute to the STEM disciplines through their understanding of and relationship with the world.

“Traditionally, Native people seek to maintain balance and harmony. This perspective brings respect to learning and understanding the power and miracle of science,” he says.

Bitsóí studied engineering as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, but he struggled to find a place in the academy. As he deliberated over which discipline would best serve himself and his people, he realized that he might not be alone in his struggle. He reasoned that other Navajos and Indian people might be having the same problem. 

Bitsóí eventually earned a master’s degree from Harvard University, where he was also associate director for recruitment and student affairs in the university’s Native American Program. Although he successfully designed and implemented Harvard’s first recruitment plan for American Indians, he noticed that college recruiters often viewed potential students only in terms of their social and economic limitations.

As a doctoral student in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, Bitsóí says he was shocked to learn that most research regarding Indian people in the academy focused on a pathology of failure. American Indian and Hispanic men are the least likely to graduate college, according to recent studies. He decided that his research would examine the themes of success for Indian men who stayed in college. He found that successful Indian men typically maintain strong connections to their cultures, languages and families.

Bitsóí’s current position in Harvard’s genetics department is unique and quite unlike that of the discipline’s typical scientist. Although his scholarship has focused primarily on education, he has also worked as a co-investigator at Georgetown University for research initiatives regarding ethical, legal and social implications of genomic research and the impact on indigenous peoples. While at Georgetown, he also helped develop the concept of Indigenous Institutional Review Boards. These boards help indigenous communities formulate protocols for researchers working in their communities.

His work at Georgetown, as well as his expertise in recruiting and counseling people of color for STEM disciplines, caught the attention of leaders in the genetics department at Harvard. They were looking for someone to create and implement a recruitment plan for underrepresented minority genomic science students. Bitsóí is adamant that people of color have a unique contribution to make to the STEM disciplines.

“I am able to create opportunities for people of color, especially for those who might otherwise eliminate themselves from attending Harvard,” he says. “I enjoy finding and working with people of that intellectual caliber.”

Longtime colleague Dr. Lorelle Espinosa says Bitsóí provides an important non-Western perspective about medicine and science and represents the American Indian ideal of personal connection to Earth’s processes.

“Lee brings a crucial voice to the challenges faced by American Indian men in higher education,” she says. 

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