MISSOULA – University of Montana chemistry Professor Aaron Thomas continues to burnish his credentials as a national leader for helping diversify STEM fields.
In his latest effort, Thomas helped UM earn a prestigious $2.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help increase the percentage of Indigenous, Black and other underrepresented students of color entering STEM fields.
UM was one of six universities nationally selected to receive the grant, and the only one in Montana. According to HHMI, these first Driving Change grants were “awarded to finalists who made strong arguments for their readiness to embark on a change journey with experiments that held the best promise for helping the whole community.”
A member of the Navajo Nation, Thomas directs UM Indigenous Research and STEM Education. In his own research, he studies mechanical separation of gases and biological species.
“UM has a number of people, programs and initiatives to support our Native American students in STEM, but more needs to be done,” he said. “This new HHMI support will help us focus on student activities and programming across the institution that will help move UM to the next level.”
He said the new funding will help UM become a national model for preparing, supporting and learning from its Native students, faculty and staff. It will help the University acknowledge the uniqueness of its Native populations, while incorporating Indigenous cultural knowledge and historical experiences into the curriculum, teaching and administrative practices.
The grant also will cultivate reciprocal collaboration with tribal communities and ensure pathways to UM and meaningful careers. Additionally, it will help create systems of support and enrichment to help Native students excel at UM, Thomas said.
“This award is a major achievement,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “It demonstrates a shared commitment from both the University and HHMI – the largest, private, biomedical research institution in the nation – to support our STEM Native American students by broadening our instruction to include place-based knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing.”
Thomas said UM will implement a number of activities focused on helping Native students succeed, including first-year programming in STEM, childcare opportunities and emergency funding. Across the University, programming will include place-based education for employees and creating Indigenous STEM curriculum in collaboration with tribal partners.
Thomas readily admits he isn’t a one-man show. The UM team of Julie Baldwin, Ke Wu, Frederick Peck, Naomi Kimbell, Brad Hall, Nathan Lindsay and Whittenburg all played key roles in bringing the HHMI grant to campus.
Black, Indigenous, Latino and other students of color initially select majors in science-related fields at the same rate as white students, according to HHMI. However, they graduate with STEM bachelor degrees at half the rate of white and Asian students. HHMI launched its Driving Change initiative in 2019 to help address this serious diversity problem.
From 99 research universities that submitted pre-proposals, 38 were selected as finalists, and those formed the “Driving Change Learning Community.” Since then the group, with 180 university representatives, has met every few months.
Awarding the first six Driving Change grants is just one early step in a much longer journey, according to Sara Simmons, the Driving Change program lead, and David Asai, the HHMI science education senior director. The expectation is that lessons learned from the grantees as they implement their programs will feed back into the larger community, “helping each one raise the bar for institutional change on their own campuses.”
The HHMI award is just the latest earned by UM and Thomas to increase diversity in STEM fields. This past August, Thomas helped land $10 million in funding to increase representation of Alaska Natives and Native Americans in STEM disciplines across the West. He was the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation award to fund a six-state collaborative called Cultivating Indigenous Research Communities for Leadership in Education, or the CIRCLES Alliance.
Thomas also helped secure a $740,000 NSF award for CIRCLES and STEM diversity efforts in October 2020. He also oversees a five-year $3.3 million Department of Education grant called Montana American Indians in Math and Science (MT AIMS), which encourages Native students across the state in grades six through 10 to consider STEM fields.
Contact: Aaron Thomas, UM director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education, chemistry professor, 406-243-2052, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.