Indigenous in STEM: How a UBC program is planting the next generation of Indigenous scientists

A UBC program is embracing the call to equity, diversity and inclusion to better serve local Indigenous youth in STEM.

In Canada, Indigenous people are underrepresented in scientific academia, with only 4.5 per cent holding a STEM degree compared to 11–12 per cent for non-Indigenous communities. A 2014 study also found that many Indigenous faculty members experience additional barriers in academic institutions, including a lack of representation..

UBC’s International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries (ICORD), a spinal research centre, is addressing barriers for Indigenous youth through the seed2STEM program.

Sowing the seeds

Through the program, local Indigenous high schoolers can participate in paid research internships at the UBC Vancouver and Okanagan campuses from July to August and work on research projects that range from bioengineering to data science.

The seed2STEM program was founded by Cheryl Niamath, ICORD’s communications and administrative manager, and Dr. Corree Laule, one of ICORD’s associate directors. In 2018, while discussing diversity as members of a faculty recruitment committee, Niamath and Laule noticed huge gaps.

“We realized that we didn’t even know any [Indigenous] grad students,” said Niamath.

Determined to expand Indigenous representation in STEM fields, Niamath and Laule created a research program that would connect Indigenous high school students to scientific research before entering university, when their minds are still open to diverse possibilities.

Generous grants from UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and other organizations, such as Stryker, a medical equipment company, were instrumental in securing the funds to pay salaries and travelling expenses. The program is also supported by the School of Biomedical Engineering, BC’s Gynecologic Cancer Initiative and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

Students work under the supervision of a principal investigator and receive minimum wage for 25-hour work weeks, which amounts to around $2,500 over the six week period.

Research projects culminate in a symposium presentation in August, which aims to celebrate students’ hard work with families, friends and other members of the scientific community.

Noah Kaiser, a second-year student in engineering at UBC Okanagan, said his research experience gained through the seed2STEM program invigorated his passion for academia.

“I was always interested in math and science more than the other fields, and I always excelled in that. [But] I didn’t know what I wanted to do in high school,” said Kaiser.

After hearing about the seed2STEM program from an Indigenous advocate, Kaiser decided to give it a shot. He had dreamed of being a scientist since he was a little kid, and this was the first time in his life he could fully explore it.

“It was a really cool experience and it really kept me interested in research,” he said.

He has continued pursuing research in his undergrad — including an upcoming project in Dr. Lisa Tobber’s structural engineering lab to study earth-resistant homes — and is “super excited” to pursue graduate studies. Kaiser also acts as a peer mentor to incoming seed2STEM students.

An environment for growth

From January to April, seed2STEM invites applications from students in grades 9–12. Rather than asking for transcripts, work experience or previous coursework in science, the application focuses on learning more about the students’ interests.

By paying participants, seed2STEM ensures that students can pursue their interests without worrying about financial issues.

“[A] vital component to the program [is that] we did not want to have to put students in a position where they would need to choose ... volunteering to get experience in a research lab,” said Laule, as volunteering is an option that is only typically feasible for certain privileged students.

Students spend one day per week in a group learning module where they attend research talks on a variety of STEM topics, group lab visits, field trips and other activities. There is also an Indigenous support worker to ensure students’ emotional wellbeing outside of work and an online course on Indigenous Awareness offered by BCIT for all program supervisors and host lab members.

The seed2STEM program is helping the next generation of Indigenous scientists navigate pathways in post-secondary education.

“Taking this program … is a great step in the right direction, seeing what it’s like to work with people who research the things that they will be learning in university,” said Kaiser.

“This program is a great way to set some perspective and get your feet in the field.”