Perseverance focus of Diné scientist's presentation at conference

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SAN ANTONIO, Oct. 10, 2013

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(Courtesy photo)

Katrina Claw, of Many Farms, Ariz., poses in a genomics lab at the University of Washington, where she also graduated with a Philosophy of Doctor in Genome Science in August and was National Science Foundation Fellow. She is also a Bonderman Travel Fellow, which means she won a $20,000 fellowship to travel to two continents and six countries and document population genetics.

Flunking mathematics and engineering classes and losing two prestigious academic scholarships while an undergraduate student didn't stop Katrina Claw from becoming a genome scientist.

Instead of succumbing to what she described as the "imposter syndrome," it took a little exploring until the 30-year-old Many Farms, Ariz. native found out that biology and anthropology were the right fit. She learned this by being exposed to research in Arizona State University's Minority Access to Research Careers program, where both fields began to "click" for her.

"I really didn't know what to do," Claw said about how she lost the Chief Manuelito Scholarship and ASU's Presidential Scholarship. "That really put me down." But Claw persevered with the help and mentoring of advisors in the MARC program that supported her.

"By that time, my grades were getting better," she said, adding that she started getting more As.

Eventually her success in both fields led her to pursuing a bachelor's in science in Biology and Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, both from ASU. Her involvement through MARC and SACNAS, a society of Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, also played a major factor in her being admitted into a doctoral program in genome sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

At the University of Washington, Claw was a National Science Foundation Fellow, where she was on an all-expense paid education. There, she primarily conducted research in the area of human genetics and evolution. Specifically, she examined how diseases and other evolutionary forces have shaped genomes, the genes and non-coding sequences of DNA/RNA.

And after five years of study at the University of Washington, Claw was conferred a Philosophy of Doctor in Genome Sciences in August, an achievement SACNAS took note of and invited her to be one of several keynote speakers at the 2013 Annual SACNAS National Conference, held in San Antonio from Oct. 3-6.

At SACNAS, the genome scientist moderated and sat in on a plenary session with other minority scientists. They told of their insights of becoming scientists to the hundreds of aspiring Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists participating in the event.

Sitting alongside Julia Maria Aguirre, a professor of education at the University of Washington-Tacoma, Yadira Ibarra, a doctoral candidate of geobiology at the University of Southern California and Rodolfo Jimenz, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Claw told of her journey and the "grit" emcee John Augusto noticed as the common theme in their scientific paths.

One of those hundreds of students inspired by Claw was Ashley Young, 22, of Kayenta, Ariz.

Young, a health occupation major at Diné College, asked Claw if she remained connected to Navajo culture by participating in ceremonies for herself.

"Were there any traditional ceremonies that you actually did while you were in school to get you through everything?" asked Young.

In response, Claw, whose father is a Native American Church roadman, said that it was because of her connection to the universe through ceremony that allowed her to achieve. Prior to pursuing her doctoral degree, Claw had an NAC ceremony conducted on her behalf and this weekend will have another ceremony to offer thanks to the universe and her support system, her family, and ask for protection on an 8-month Bonderman Travel Fellowship overseas trip that begins in November.

"I always prayed and had corn pollen," Claw said, adding that her father would offer prayers if she got stressed out from her studies, and, if need be, journey home to the reservation to recuperate.

Another question asked of Claw was if she had any plans for postdoctoral study?

As a Bonderman Fellow, she "can't really do research" on her travel fellowship, which requires her to tour at least two continents and six countries. The travel fellowship, which is funded by University of Washington alumnus Davis Bonderman, is also an opportunity for Claw to document her adventure as well as finding any connections to the Navajo people in the indigenous communities she visits through population genetics.

She will begin her travels in November, with a $20,000 stipend. She also has a blog called that will document her travel experiences aboard.

As for being successful in the sciences and winning academic scholarships like being a National Science Foundation fellow, it's about being resourceful.

"There are a lot out there," she said, adding that that aspiring scientists need to surround themselves with mentors and set goals. "If you don't apply, you're never going to get it."
Now that she's a scientist, Claw describes the feeling of it being surreal.

"Everyone says I'm doing good and such, but for me it was like tiny footsteps," she said.

She also notices the connection between Navajo culture and science from being a genomicist.

"It is just telling me that same thing that were connected," she said. "I think science is finally catching up to what we already know."

Claw is Tó'áhání (Near the Water People Clan) and born for Deeshchii'nii. Her maternal grandfather's clan is Tód’ch'íinii (Bitter Water People Clan) and paternal grandfather is Bit'ahnii.

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