Taking Flight: “GRO” Fellow Bridges Cultural Heritage and Science

By Ciarra Greene


I grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation in Northern Idaho, surrounded by rolling wheat fields and wooded mountains, where I learned the traditional stories of my Tribe.  My favorite quote was one my father would recite while we were hunting, fishing, and gathering: “The earth is part of my body… I belong to the land out of which I came.”  From the Nez Perce leader Toohoolhoolzote, the quote inspired me to observe and investigate my environment and initiated my desire to bridge my culture with Western science.

As a college undergraduate in 2010 at Northern Arizona University, I received a two-year Greater Research Opportunity (GRO) EPA Fellowship that provided support for my ongoing undergraduate research and for a summer internship.

Under the guidance of Jani Ingram Ph.D, my undergraduate research focused on environmental uranium contamination.   Uranium mining occurred on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, leaving a toxic landscape for the people. The harvested uranium was transported for processing at the Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Richland, Washington, resulting in further contamination of natural and cultural resources of other Tribes, including the Nez Perce. The relationship of uranium and Native peoples captivated my interest and solidified my dedication to the project.

Our lab focused on water, soil, plants, livestock (sheep) and my specific project: cleaning up the contamination. Through my research, I was able to educate both Native and non-Native people about the challenges Tribal Nations are facing today because of decisions made decades ago.

My summer internship took me all the way across the country, where my assignment—“The Helicopter Monitoring Program”—involved surveying and sampling New Jersey and New York waterways and beaches from the air. 

I was also invited to attend the Consultation with Indian Nations Training Course in New York City, where I gave a presentation about the challenges of working with tribes in the Southwest and Northwest.  I was honored to share my experiences about the environmental problems facing Tribes throughout our nation. 

Later that summer, I made another presentation at the Society for American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) about my research, various EPA fellowship and scholarship opportunities, and Native American women in the workforce, focusing on my role in EPA.

I took the opportunity to share my culture, experiences, and concerns with professionals across the nation.  My goal was to give back more than I had received from this extraordinary experience.

About the Author: Ciarra Greene, a former GRO Fellow, is part of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho. She is currently working at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, AZ, educating youth about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  She will be attending the University of Idaho next fall to pursue a Master’s Degree in Natural Resources through their McCall Outdoor Science School.

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