This week's featured Indigenous scientist is Aaron Yazzie. Aaron was born in Tuba City, Arizona, and was raised in Holbrook, Arizona, the seat of Navajo County.
Yazzie attended Stanford University, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2008. In September of that year, he started working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There, he designs mechanical systems for robotic space research systems. He has contributed to the Mars Science Laboratory Rover missions, the Mars InSight Lander Mission, and the Mars 2020 Rover Mission, the latter of which is due to launch on July 30th, 2020. You can check out a 3D visualization of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover here.
When he's not building parts for planetary research vessels, Yazzie enjoys reaching out to young people—particularly those from Indigenous communities—and encouraging them to consider futures in STEM. He is also a Sequoyah Fellow (lifetime member) of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, where he strives to increase Indigenous representation in STEM fields.
Yazzie took time out of his busy week to answer a few questions I had.
Sara Wilbur: When did you first start getting interested in STEM?
Aaron Yazzie: I’ve always been interested in being creative and building things. Those early interests are what got me on a path to engineering—the math and science came next.
SW: Tell me about your interest in robotics.
AY: I wish, growing up, there would have been more opportunities (or any opportunities) in robotics (e.g. clubs, competitions like FIRST Robotics, VEX Robotics, etc) in my hometown or school. But nothing like that existed. It wasn’t until I went to college that I built my first robot as part of a class. As a mechanical engineer, I designed and built mechanisms and structures. Then you add motors, electronics, and computer programming, and the field becomes even more challenging and exciting.
SW: What was the transition like for you from Holbrook, Arizona to Palo Alto, California, where you attended Stanford University?
AY: It wasn’t an easy transition. The quantity and pace of knowledge transfer was much higher than I had ever experienced in small town public school. Also I had a very full class schedule for my 4 years to a bachelor’s degree because I had no AP-type classes to transfer. I learned quickly how to be a better student and a better learner. I also learned how to seek help when I needed it. These harsh lessons I learned followed me to NASA, too, where I once again found myself in a fast-paced learning environment. I’ve gotten good at being a life-long learner. All the work put in over the years make an achievement like the Mars 2020 launch that much more rewarding.
SW: What aspect of your work are you most proud of?
AY: I’m proud that I get to help with advancement of knowledge, technology, and science for a living. I get paid to learn cool things and share it with the world! It’s a privilege. As a byproduct, this helps inspire many to pursue education and careers in STEM.
SW: I imagine you’ve inspired other Indigenous children to pursue STEM. Can you share any of those experiences?
AY: I try to engage with Indigenous students and communities as much as possible. Growing up, I didn’t see much representation of Indigenous Peoples at places like NASA, so it took me a long time to realize that someone like me could actually belong there. Now, I am consistently moved and motivated by the response from the Indigenous community in seeing one of their own represented on projects like Mars Curiosity and Mars 2020. I have been blessed with a platform to motivate students who are like me.
SW: Tell me about the Mars 2020 Rover Mission!
AY: The Mars 2020 Rover, named Perseverance, is heading to Mars in a matter of days (launch window opens on July 30, 2020). It has several goals for its mission: study the geology and climate of Mars, pave the path for Humans to one-day explore the planet, and determine if there is, or ever was, life on Mars. It will do this through a set of highly advanced science instruments aboard a car-sized rover with incredible technological capabilities. Also, coming along for the ride is a Mars helicopter named Ingenuity. This helicopter will be our first demonstration of flight on another planet.
One of the systems on Perseverance is a Sample Caching System that will drill and collect samples of Mars rocks and regolith [the layer of unconsolidated rocky material covering bedrock] for potential return to Earth in future missions. This is the system I worked on for the past four years. I built the drill bits that the rover will use to collect samples for study. There are three types of bits: a coring bit that will drill a cylindrical core sample of rock, a regolith bit that will collect loose rocky material (or regolith), and an abrading bit that will make flat, shallow abrasions in rocks so we can image beneath the top layer of weathered rock. These drill bits can be interchanged through a bit carousel; Perseverance has nine total bits to choose from.
If you want any additional information about the mission that I didn't cover, or are looking for cool pictures to use, there are a lot of good resources here: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.
Considering she is still a junior scientist, Krystal Tsosie (Diné) has invested an incredible amount of time into her research interests and passions. Originally from Arizona, she received a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and two master's degrees (in bioethics and epidemiology) from Arizona State University. She is now pursuing her PhD in Genomics and Health Disparities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Similar to last week's highlighted scientist, Dr. Náníbaaʼ Garrison, Tsosie works with Indigenous communities to maintain governance over their genetic material. She also co-leads a long-term study investigating pre-eclampsia—a pregnancy disorder characterized by high blood pressure and kidney and/or liver damage—in Ojibwe women, and hopes to identify genetic factors that may be contributing to high rates of pre-eclampsia in Indigenous communities.
Tsosie also co-facilitates the international Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) workshop. Through SING workshops held in the US, Canada, and New Zealand, participants can gather and discuss cultural and ethical concerns related to genomics (genomics is the study of all of a person's genes, including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person's environment).
Tsosie is inspiring in her advocacy for underrepresented groups in medicine and genetic research! You can follow her on Twitter and watch her TEDx talk on DNA and identity here.
Written by Sara Wilbur
If you like to go hiking in Arizona, you’ve most likely seen a jackrabbit quickly leap away at one point or another. Easily recognizable with their sizely ears, they aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are hares, distinct from rabbits because they are born with hair and do not live in burrows.
Jackrabbits live in desert habitats with hot daytime temperatures. Their ears are an adaptation to deal with heat in the desert. The large thin ears have a network of blood vessels that control blood flow depending on the temperature. The warm blood from the body is circulated to the ears which can then shed the extra heat to the surrounding air. The opposite happens during chilly nights to conserve heat. The use of ears to control body temperature is surprising, but they also serve their obvious purpose as well.
The hairs themselves are herbivores, but are a food source for a number of other creatures. Their predators include coyotes, hawks, eagles, foxes, bobcats and humans. Hence, the large ears are used for self-preservation. They are able to hear predators before attempting to escape at speeds as fast as 40 mph.
In addition, they have other impressive adaptations that make them suitable for an arid environment. Their diet includes a variety of plants containing water and they are also coprophagous. Coprophagous means that they eat their own feces, consuming any droppings still containing moisture.
Jackrabbits are extraordinary; these gorgeous creatures are equipped with camouflaging fur, a hydrating diet, and radiating ears.
written by Kelly Randazzo
For my master's research, I studied arctic ground squirrels on the North Slope of Alaska. From that work, I developed an affinity for squirrels, and was delighted to find a new favorite species when I moved to Flagstaff last August.
The Abert's squirrel (Sciurus aberti) is endemic to portions of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. What does endemic mean? Endemic is a word that scientists use to describe a native species that has a restricted range. Besides Abert's squirrels having a distinctive look with their tasseled ears, they are also special to us in Flagstaff because this area is one of the few places they call home.
Why do Abert's squirrels live in a place like Flagstaff? These adorable rodents are almost exclusively found in dry ponderosa pine forests. They primarily eat ponderosa and Mexican pinyon seeds, although when these are not available they will also eat buds, bark, and fungi. Eating fungus and passing it it through their droppings spreads fungal spores, which are beneficial to ponderosas; thus, the diet of the Abert's squirrel actually helps the growth of their favorite tree!
While Abert's squirrels are most readily identified by their tufted ears, they also have a distinct reddish-brown stripe on their backs, a very fluffy tail, and a white underbelly. In the summer, they shed their long ear hairs and lose their winter coat. In the fall, they regrow their ear tassels and thick coat to make it through the winter.
When are you most likely to see an Abert's squirrel? Take a walk through the forest around Flagstaff anytime after sunrise and before sunset and you may see one of these fuzzballs sprinting across the forest floor or squeaking high up in a ponderosa pine. Baby Abert's are present in nests—which are built from ponderosa twigs—between June 10th and July 27th, so you might see youngsters emerge if your stroll is during late summer.
In Flagstaff, we have our very own Abert's mascot. His name is Albert. He loves to share friendly reminders about how we can live more gently on the Earth. Have you seen Albert around town?
Want to see Abert's squirrels in your back yard? Hang a bird feeder (which may soon turn into a squirrel feeder!) and wait for these acrobatic critters to come looking for snacks.
Written by Sara Wilbur
Art and STEM are more the same than they are different. Both subjects are an attempt to understand the world around us. While art frequently requires a similar process to engineering design, STEM requires a good deal of creativity and imagination. It won’t come as a surprise that America's first STEM Community is filled with public art. Many of the art pieces in Flagstaff express scientific knowledge and are inspired by natural surroundings.
A few in particular include:
The Rainbow de Rio Mosaic Project consists of 22 tile mosaics created by Karen Knorowski. The panels colorfully celebrate the biodiversity of Rio de Flagstaff. Many of the plants and animals depicted are found in the nearby Frances Short Pond and Rio de Flag habitat. This was a collaborative project that included the help of workshop participants, local volunteers and students from the Hopi reservation and Flagstaff Unified School District.
Although it’s been hot and dry in Flagstaff lately, we residents of northern Arizona know that our trails and gardens will soon be drenched with monsoon rains. While these rains are welcoming, refreshing, and exciting, they can also lead to property damage and flooding. Nevertheless, monsoon season is a phenomenon that many Flagstaffians look forward to.
Last August, I drove down from Fairbanks, Alaska to make a new home in Flagstaff. I had heard about the monsoon season and was excited to experience it. However, as Flagstaff residents are well aware, the monsoon rains didn’t fall in 2019. Why did we skip a year?
What is a monsoon?
To answer this question, we need to understand what a monsoon is and why some areas experience monsoon seasons.
A monsoon occurs when wind patterns shift to carry moist air from the tropics to drier desert locations. Hot June temperatures in Mexico and the southwestern US initiates these wind shifts, carrying moisture off the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean and bringing rains and storms to the southwest. Monsoon season is critical for keeping northern Arizona’s reservoirs full and its farms productive: 40–50% of the area’s annual precipitation arrives during monsoon season.
So, what happened in 2019?
Perhaps not surprisingly, meteorologists throughout Arizona have differing opinions on why our monsoon season was seemingly absent in 2019.
Drawing from news articles published in August 2019, all meteorologists agree that last year was unusual. It’s difficult to argue with the data: last year was the driest on record (since 1898), with only 2.08 inches of rain (Flagstaff’s average monsoon season precipitation is 8.31 inches). Perhaps, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Taylor, a competing weather system from the west pushed away moist air traveling from Mexico. Some meteorologists chalk up our dry monsoon season to “luck of the draw.” Michael Crimmins, another National Weather Service meteorologist, maintained that the monsoon season did come, but it was “a little bit later and...weaker” than past seasons.
Overall, it’s difficult to say what caused our dry monsoon season last year. For now, we’ll continue to look to the sky and hope for our replenishing rains to make their anticipated appearance.
For more information about the monsoon season in northern Arizona, check out this National Weather Service page.
Written by Sara Wilbur
One does not need to live in Flagstaff for long to know that it gets windy, especially in the springtime. But why does this area seem to feel it more than others? First, let’s examine what wind is: the mostly horizontal movement of air. This movement occurs as a mass of air moving from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure.
The differences in air pressure are created by varying amounts of heat on the globe. Near the equator, where sunlight reaches the Earth more directly, the heat rises and is replaced by cooler air from the north and south. Winds are also modified by the Earth’s rotation (Gaughan 2019).
With that in mind, note that spring is a particularly windy season, which makes sense because it is a transitional time of year. A time where temperatures drastically fluctuate, creating a lot of air movement. As jet streams from the northwest reach Northern Arizona, the difference in pressure creates powerful winds (Jones 2020).
Lastly, another reason is due to the topography of Northern Arizona which is situated near a large volcanic mountain range. The San Francisco Peaks often accelerate winds. When the horizontal flow of air encounters the mountains, it is forced up and over, deflected downward by the stable air above (Jones 2020). This deflection increases the momentum of air so locations downwind from the mountain experience the wind at much higher magnitudes. Be prepared for some windy weather and tune in to learn more about our monsoon season.
Jones, T. (2020, February 11). Why Northern Arizona's Springtime Winds are So Strong. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://explorethecanyon.com/why-northern-arizonas-springtime-winds-are-so-strong/
Gaughan, R. (2019, March 02). How Solar Energy Affects the Earth's Atmosphere. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://sciencing.com/solar-energy-affects-earths-atmosphere-22463.html
Written by Kelly Randazzo
One of the most significant scientific disciplines was created right here in Flagstaff. Dendrochronology, the study of tree rings and their connection to environmental conditions, has been observed by humans for centuries, dating back to the ancient Greeks (Sheppard 2010). It wasn’t until Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who travelled to Flagstaff in 1901 to assist with the construction of an observatory founded by astronomer Percival Lowell, that dendrochronology became a significant scientific study. Douglass had many scientific interests interconnected with astronomy, a significant area of his research included the study of the earth’s climate and effects of sunspots (Dean 2012). In order to properly analyze climate, he was searching for a scientific discipline to create a weather record database stretching back long enough to reveal significant patterns. It was here, in the dry climate of the Southwest, biologically diverse with a landscape of ponderosa pine trees, that Douglas hypothesised that tree growth is directly correlated with climate, specifically rainfall. He researched the variation of tree-ring width and observed that these variations matched among trees from a large area, known as crossdating (Dean 2012). Thus, the potential of dendrochronology was realized and led to further scientific research through dendroclimatology and archeological dating. STEM City is proud to share our abundantly rich STEM community that has influenced advances in the study of climate change and archeological research.
Written by Kelly Randazzo
Dean, J. S. (2012). Trees, Time, and Environment. In C. E. Downum (Author), Hisat'sinom: Ancient peoples in a land without water (pp. 35-36). Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.
Sheppard, P. R. (2010). Dendroclimatology: Extracting climate from trees. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 343-352. doi:10.1002/wcc.42
The new adult Makerspace, The Coco-op (Coconino Cooperative) is opening its doors to the public on July 1st. The cooperative is a nonprofit organization founded on radical inclusivity. Membership fees are on a sliding scale, $50 for an individual and $75 for a family, however no one will be turned away due to lack of funds. While it is an adult makerspace (18+) there is a possibility for young adults to participate with parents or guardians in the future. They hope to indirectly support youth by being a central STEAM hub and creating opportunities to connect some of their talented members with younger folks as mentors. The space is a community effort, molded by the members themselves in order to explore whatever interests them. Current areas of interest are (but not limited to) woodworking, metalworking/silversmithing, glassblowing, ceramics, electronics, fabric arts, 3d printing, gardening, and media work including CAD, photoshop and video editing. The Coco-op rests on the idea that the intersection of art, engineering and technology is extremely valuable.
As a cooperative, the new makerspace aims to foster connection. Cofounder, Graham Campbell, believes that combinatorial practices are the key to success. The Space is located in a warehouse at 1155 W. Kaibab. Please contact Graham Campbell at email@example.com or visit https://www.cocoop.org/coco-op for more information. The Coco-op is always looking for equipment donations!
Equipment donations starting to roll in:
Electronic testing equipment (oscilloscope, power supply and more), 15" wood planer, Lathe, Arduino, Soldering Iron, Painting Easel, Desktop Computers
Equipment Asks - wish list:
table saw, vertical band saw, Kiln & pottery wheel, anvil, sewing machine, drill press, Bridgeport mill, shop vacuum
The Flagstaff Sustainability Leaders course was developed by myself and Emily Shaffer. This is a 10-week intensive volunteer training course designed to educate Flagstaff community members about all things sustainability-related and providing action ideas to inspire volunteer projects focused on sustainability. The program is a combination of two previous volunteer training courses that was created in order to streamline programs for the sake of clarity for the public and to increase staff capacity. Once the course is finished, we will have 25 new fully-trained sustainability volunteers in Flagstaff!
One of the electives from the training focused on protecting Flagstaff’s Open Space. For this, we brought in Leila Husain, a VISTA working in the Sustainability Section’s Open Space division, to explain the steps Flagstaff is taking to preserve natural areas within city limits. For this class, we took the bus as a group to McMillan Mesa. The photo is a view of the San Francisco Peaks from a trail at McMillan Mesa. This Open Space property is in the middle of the city, near Buffalo Park, and provides walkable access to natural areas for people in the Sunnyside neighborhood, as well as all people in Flagstaff!
written by Jillian Goulet, Community Resilience VISTA