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."

Bill Swaney
Bill Swaney
May 03, 2011 10:59 AM
Unfortunately, this reader has specific knowledge of quite a different view of the individual in this article that is based on first hand observation and experience. I will simply say that some people are masters at self promotion to an audience who does not know any better. I have worked far longer than this individual at educating tribal students and I am also an ENROLLED member of a federally recognized tribe...I am not merely "self identified". I would have very different views of what was and was not accomplished by this person while at the institution I work at
dan miller
dan miller
May 03, 2011 11:49 AM
Great story. I would want to work in that lab. By the way I am also a descendant (my mom is enrolled). People are always trying to discrimanate by using enrolled against descendants and so on. I'm tired of it. I grew up more indian that some enrolled members and they still think they are better than me. That's what caused us to loose all the wars anyway. That last guy, sounds like jealousy to me. Good job to this guy in the article.
Chelsea Morales
Chelsea Morales
May 03, 2011 12:40 PM
I have had the unique opportunity to work under Dr. Ceballos at the Native American Research lab at the University of Montana for 3 years. I am half Puerto Rican and half Native American (enrolled). I grew up very much immersed in both of my cultural backgrounds. Being Native American is more then self-identification, it's about practicing cultural knowledge, traditions, beliefs, and community. I can say from first hand observation and experience that this sense of culture is instilled in Dr. Ceballos and he is very much aware of the challenges his tribal students face. My experience in the UM-NARL has been welcoming and a learning experience. Dr. Ceballos has been an active mentor and a friend in my academic career. I am thankful for all that Michael has done for me and wish him all the best in his future endeavors!
Joshua Marceau
Joshua Marceau
May 03, 2011 02:30 PM
To address the issue of “an ENROLLED member of a federally recognized tribe”. I am a lowly descendant that grew up on the flathead but I still feel like our ancestors are the same people. My grandfather and father just decided not to marry another member in the tribe. It is a shame that people will try to say "you’re not an Indian" because of who my ancestors married. I feel very unwanted and pushed away from my tribe because of this. I believe these issues and mindsets are what will eventually tear apart the tribes and destroy the cultures. It becomes basically an exclusive club for the people with the loudest mouths and people like Dr. Ceballos who are just interested in helping students and pursuing their scientific interests fail to keep up in the shouting match and are slandered. As an SKC student for 5 years I was only in contact with Dr. Ceballos for a year before he had me fully funded and well on my way to a career in biological sciences. To me this says much more than someone who has spent a much larger portion of their carrier “educating tribal students” and has little to show for it. Dr. Ceballoss deserves the publicity that he is getting, he has done great things. Maybe other faculty would be as productive as Dr. Ceballos if they spent their time teaching and helping students rather that posting hateful/negative comments on a very well-written article.
Joshua Marceau
Joshua Marceau
May 03, 2011 02:51 PM
If only comments from “ENROLLED member of a federally recognized tribe” count what about the tribes that the government doesn’t recognize? Are they not Indians if the government doesn’t recognize the tribe? This is a very dangerous train of thinking that the government gets to decide who is an Indian.
CultAnthro Princess
CultAnthro Princess
May 03, 2011 05:23 PM
This is an interesting article. Even though the article is about what a great job this professor has done working with all kinds of people, the comments are also interesting to me as a student of cultural anthropology. First, the tribes mentioned are all federally-recognized as indigenous groups both in the US and Mexico (under different names such as Pima, Tohono Oodham, "Pima Bajo" Lower Pima and "Tepejuanos" Tepehuanes) so that is basically a moot point. What is more interesting is this battle of "enrollment". I can't imagine what would happen if we tried to measure a persons "blackness" in the African-American community and give people that are "blacker" ID cards and people who are "less black" none - ha! talk about chaos. So, there are just words like "redbone", "light-skinned", and so forth but everyone is black. As I was always taught, "united we stand, divided we fall". But anyway this is interesting.
VaNessa Thompson
VaNessa Thompson
May 03, 2011 06:25 PM
As any true native would know, being native is so much more than your blood count. Who you are and how you identify yourself comes from your family, community, and traditional teachings. Being culturally and spiritually aware of your heritage is not something that you acquire through “enrollment”. If your only basis for identification as a Native American is the number assigned to you by the government then perhaps some reevaluation of your own heritage might be in order.
Dr. Ceballos and his lab has given me opportunities and experiences that I might not have had had I not been a part of NARL. Before I moved to Montana I was attending the local tribal college without much direction or motivation but after I begin working in NARL I found that not only did it provide me with a great learning experience, but more importantly has given me an environment from which exceptional guidance, support and inspiration are readily available. I am Dine’ (Navajo) and as part of my traditional teachings I’ve always know that you don’t judge a person by their color, race or religion but by their character and actions, a lesson you obviously missed. Michael and the other members of the lab have a unique understanding of the challenges that we face as Native American students in the sciences, and they also have firsthand knowledge of what it means to overcome those challenges.
If you had such knowledge and opportunity to offer students tell me where are your lab and your students testifying to your contribution to their academic advancement. By commenting and trying to discredit another professor on a public site you seem to be the one “self-promoting”, and at that you’re failing terribly because all you’ve accomplished is drawing attention to his accomplishments.
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
May 04, 2011 09:20 AM
Some comments have been removed from this thread because they crossed the line into personal attacks. Dissenting points of view are welcome, but accusations and name-calling are not conducive to civil discussion. Thank you, Jodi Peterson, Managing Editor
Jackson Chief Elk
Jackson Chief Elk
May 10, 2011 12:19 PM
Its ridiculous to hear that other natives are bashing someone over their enrollment status, a scheme devised to disenfranchise us. I don't know what occurred at the last institution Michael worked at, but at The University of Montana he has done some amazing things. Michael has done nothing but help so many graduate and undergraduate native students while he has been here. He has provided MANY opportunities for students to get paid and participate in a research project, an experience that helped both me and Chelsea get into graduate school. In addition Michael takes in summer students from tribal colleges across the nation to participate in research projects. The University of Montana really has something going on and I hope it continues.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Sep 06, 2011 09:47 AM
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Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.