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At The Story Collider, Indigenous scientists reflect on their experiences

Panelists point out that we should celebrate Indigenous science, not sideline it
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Neilson (left) and Morriseau (right) try to bring Indigenous voices into their research. COURTESY OF HILDING NEILSON AND TAYLOR MORISEAU
Neilson (left) and Morriseau (right) try to bring Indigenous voices into their research. COURTESY OF HILDING NEILSON AND TAYLOR MORISEAU

There’s a noted lack of Indigenous presence in much of academia. This is a particularly pervasive problem in STEM fields. According to Statistics Canada, less than two per cent of people in Canada who work in STEM are Indigenous.

On September 30, Canada’s inaugural Truth and Reconciliation day, The Story Collider — a podcasting organization that showcases stories from people currently working in science — held a virtual Toronto liveshow named “Indigenous in STEM” designed to spotlight the voices of Indigenous scientists in Canada. The two speakers featured at the show spoke about their experiences as Indigenous scientists in Canada, Indigenous science, and the futures they’d like to see for their fields.

Filling in the gaps

Hilding Neilson, one of the speakers, is an assistant professor in the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at U of T, and it’s obvious that he enjoys his field of study immensely. “There’s nothing more privileged in this world, I think, than having the ability to do astrophysics,” he told The Story Collider’s audience. He’s spent most of his life studying space, and when he talks about his teaching work, his eyes light up.

But he’s also been in the field long enough to know how much it’s limited by white and Western settler perspectives. The astronomy curricula in his department are heavily centered on the history of Western astronomy research. In the few places where other perspectives are mentioned, they’re always presented within a white Western context.

“I get to teach courses about… great moments [in] the history of astronomy, from Aristotle, to Copernicus, to Galileo, to Brahe, to Kepler, to Newton, to Einstein. There’s a wonderful history of great white men and their achievements. But there’s so much missing,” said Neilson.

For a long time, he wasn’t sure how to find any of the missing pieces. Neilson, who is Mi’kmaw, grew up without many personal ties to his heritage or Mi’kmaw communities. He was introduced to physics by a curriculum informed by settler colonial perspectives, and for many years, he didn’t have the chance to meet many other Indigenous people in astrophysics. “There are so few Indigenous people in STEM and in physics. If you go into physics, it’s even fewer,” he said in an interview with The Varsity

That changed when, at one of his regular astrophysics conferences, he had the opportunity to attend a talk about Indigenous astronomy teachings. The speaker, a Cree Elder, talked about travelling across Manitoba and visiting Cree communities with his portable observatory to teach about traditional astronomy. Neilson was inspired by the Elder’s teachings.

“Hearing about astronomy of this land [and] these peoples — astronomy that predates colonization — is wonderful,” said Neilson. “We’re on Indigenous land. We should have those knowledges available to be seen.”

This semester, he’s teaching a course about Indigenous astronomy, and he’s excited about the avenues it could open up. “Having courses that are not just about one set of voices is a way to create some space for students to see these issues,” he told The Varsity

Some day, he says, he’d like to be able to do a project that brings Indigenous communities to the forefront. Giving them the tools and authority to conduct their own research would result in more benefits for the entire field — including research that could be directed specifically to address questions those communities have.

An academic culture steeped in privilege

Taylor Morriseau, a biomedical researcher and a PhD candidate who spoke at the event, is used to research now. She’s on the board of the Native BioData Consortium, and she’s received multiple accolades for her work. When she started her first undergraduate research project, it was a new and exciting experience for her. She’d been a student for so long, and now she finally had the opportunity to apply what she’d learned in a way that would really make a difference.

What she really wanted to study — and what she’s still studying now — is diabetes. It’s a disease that disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples in Canada, and its effects are inextricably linked to the legacy of colonization. It was a project that Morriseau was incredibly passionate about, and she was determined to succeed at it.

“I was really excited that my undergraduate research term would make a difference in diabetes health,” she said. “And in hindsight, that was really, really naive — but it was also the start of my journey in Indigenous health research.”

Her first lab experience, though, was emotionally draining. The culture of her lab felt inhospitable, and she found herself playing down aspects of her own identity in order to blend in. When her research started to be recognized, she was worried that her compatriots would discredit her success as the result of tokenism.

But she was still passionate about her research, and when she started to find success in it, she was buoyed by the idea that she was accomplishing exactly what she had set out to do. She found community in an Indigenous centre on her campus at the University of Manitoba, and worked hard to create research and presentation skills that would be unassailable. She set her sights high, and applied for acceptance at some of the most prestigious programs she could find.

But as she went through with her applications, she started to lose momentum. She’d worked very hard to get into a position where she could be a really effective advocate for her research — but she found herself in an environment that felt steeped in privilege and condescension, where her compatriots and interviewers still didn’t seem to care about Indigenous health. It was demoralizing, and it made her idea of those research programs start to crumble.

Today, Morriseau has found that the best way to conduct her research is closer to home. She’s working on her PhD research at the University of Manitoba, and she’s found it more encouraging — and more helpful — than doing her research anywhere else. 

“Surrounding yourself with community — it makes you unstoppable. And not only is that the way that I wanted to feel, it’s also the way I wanted to do my research.”

Making spaces to tell Indigenous stories

This event is a new one, but Sara Mazrouei, one of the two co-hosts of the event, hopes that more Indigenous-centric story hours can be organized in the future. “[The Indigenous in STEM show is] just a starting point and we want to make sure Indigenous voices are included in all of our work,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Misha Gajewski, who also co-hosted the event, said that an attendee had reached out to them to mention how much they appreciated being able to hear other Indigenous people talk about their own stories in science — and about how rarely that opportunity came about.

Both Morriseau and Neilson expressed satisfaction with how the event went. “As an academic, I’ve become accustomed to public speaking and learning to disassociate myself from the science on the screen. Being a storyteller is something else entirely,” wrote Morriseau, in an email to The Varsity.

“There is still so much to learn, which requires continual listening beyond the scope of a cultural-awareness workshop. It is our collective responsibility, as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, to listen to the truth, to hold space for worldviews that are not our own, and to incorporate these teachings into action,” she added.