Bridging American Indian students' scientific achievement gap

  • Michael Ceballos collects a sample from a hot pool of bubbling mud in Costa Rica, for study in the Native American Research Lab back in Montana.

    University of Montana-Missoula
  • Michael Ceballos works in the University of Montana's Native American Research Lab with student Chelsea Morales, a Gros Ventre tribal member. In the background, the Wall of Fame shows former students who have excelled in the lab.

    Todd Goodrich, UM
  • Michael Ceballos

    Todd Goodrich, UM

Michael Ceballos' grandfather dropped out of school at 13 to help support his family. He worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, first laying track, then as a foreman. When he retired, his grandchildren thought he might spend his pension and bonus on a new car.

Instead, he enrolled in college. Today, his grandson, a genial man of Tepehuan descent who wears a bolo tie and a long braid, remembers his surprise: "He told me, 'When you go to the university, there are going to be people who don't think you should be there. And when it's difficult, I want to be able to help you.' "

Ceballos did go on to college, completing a bachelor's in physics while holding down a day-job as a draftsman for Boeing, and recently earning a Ph.D. in integrative microbiology and biochemistry. And he's taken his grandfather's spirit to heart: In  2007, he founded the Native American Research Lab (NARL) at the University of Montana-Missoula -- the first lab of its kind at a national university -- to mentor Native students working in the sciences, who often lag academically due to socioeconomic disadvantages.

As a child growing up in multicultural San Diego, Ceballos felt accepted, but a high school stint in Georgia showed him a different world. Racism was common and held non-whites back: A teacher tried to put him in special education, but Ceballos fought his way into the gifted program, where he belonged.

When Ceballos began teaching at the Salish Kootenai Tribal College on western Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation in 2004, he discovered that many of his students lacked confidence. "I've had Indian students come to me and go, 'I can't do math, I'm an Indian,' " Ceballos says. "What the heck are you saying? Native people may have been the first people to discover the number zero as an operable numeral. Science is an intrinsic part of who you are as an indigenous person. And having students realize that -- it's not because of my race, it's because I'm not studying -- is half the battle."

Ceballos and other instructors tried to arouse interest by linking science lessons to Native traditions, says Salish student Josh Marceau. But the school needed a lab. "Students weren't jazzed about science because they weren't doing it," Ceballos says. So he raised $200,000 from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes for Health and built the first working tribal college lab, focusing on molecular biology and biochemistry.

Ceballos became a mentor, offering help with scholarship applications. Marceau was working full-time as a garbage collector when the lab opened. After winning a scholarship, he quit and enrolled full-time while working at the lab. Marceau studied a virus that infects mountain lions in Yellowstone National Park, and with Ceballos' help, transferred to a four-year university to complete his bachelor's degree.

Meanwhile, in 2007 Ceballos was hired by the University of Montana and founded NARL, which has drawn indigenous people from all over the Americas as well as non-Native and international students. "Native students come from different backgrounds: Some come off the reservation, some come from cities," says chemistry professor Sandy Ross, a lab adviser. "But often (they) are the first generation to be seeking advanced degrees." NARL provides career support, hands-on lab experience, interaction with peers from around the world, and culturally relevant role models, including Ceballos himself, so that students see Native people working as scientists.

Currently, the lab's exploring the microbial diversity of "extreme" habitats, like volcanic hot springs. And students are studying viral evolution to understand why viruses like HIV, SARS, West Nile, and H1N1 can be particularly powerful when they jump species barriers but become less deadly over time. Other projects target biofuel development and the impacts of climate change on Southwestern tribes.

Work is primary in Ceballos' life right now, but he enjoys woodworking in his spare time and is building a house on the Flathead Reservation. His two youngest kids live with him and his wife; the two oldest are pursuing science and medical degrees.

Ceballos' student Marceau is now in graduate school at the University of Montana and works at NARL. After earning his Ph.D., he hopes to set up a biotech company on the Flathead Reservation so he and other Native Ph.D.s can work close to home.

That goal is surely made more possible by NARL. In its first three years, NARL has served more than 70 students, including Native Americans from 25 tribes. Several students have been accepted to master's and doctoral programs in chemistry, biology and biomedical sciences.

"Education is power," Ceballos says. "Native people should have a voice in the global scientific community. The way you get there is by finishing the Ph.D.s, by proving yourself as a bona fide scientist, and by maintaining your cultural ties. That's the way we can move forward as a people."