RIT grad has passion for serving native youth through unique STEM opportunities at Northern Arizona University and the U.S. Army

Dr. Naomi Lee hosts a program sponsored in part by Army Educational Outreach Program Apprenticeships and Fellowships, administered by RIT’s K-12 University Center

Naomi Lee

CARE closing ceremony, fall 2023.

Dr. Naomi Lee is passionate about involving native youth in science, technology, engineering and math; and to prove there’s a STEM identity and need within the indigenous community.

As one of her focuses, the tenure-track chemistry professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, found a way to leverage the work she does through a program called CARE – Cultural and Academic Research Experience – with Army Educational Outreach Program Apprenticeships and Fellowships. The effort helps her goal of serving Native American high school students aimed at gaining a plethora of experiences in research and other skills. In the fall, nominated students were selected to attend the American Indian Science and Engineering Society national conference that has a mission of advancing indigenous people in STEM. In October, 14 CARE students were featured at AISES held in Spokane, Washington, which seven presented posters on their summer research.

CARE was created in 2019, and has been primarily supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of the Health. As the program expands, additional support is provided through various networks such as the Flinn Foundation and the American Chemical Society.  This year, CARE included 24 students, which 12 were supported by the U.S. Army through a grant from its apprenticeships and fellowships program.

Administered by RIT’s K-12 University Center  on behalf of the U.S. Army, AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships provides paid, interactive STEM opportunities to high school through postdoctoral individuals with real-world, hands-on innovation and research at Army-sponsored facilities and partner universities across the country, working alongside some of the world’s best scientists and engineers. Participants are immersed in work that has a global impact, and ignites a passion in STEM, which often leads to further educational opportunities, scholarships, and career advancement.

“When I was a postdoc at NIH in 2013, it was the first time I was really able to work with students like me,” Lee said. “I’ve always felt disconnected from my community, so when I went to NIH, they had a high school program to encourage more native students to participate. … That’s what helped lead me on this path of academia and find a way to give back to my community.”

Lee was raised on the Cattaraugus Reservation where she later completed her undergraduate degree at Rochester Institute of Technology. She went on to receive a doctoral degree from the University of Rochester. Both colleges are about two hours northeast of where she grew up.

Through various experiences, Lee eventually landed a job at NAU as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry where she also founded CARE. The purpose was to combine her passions of culture and science research into a program available to underserved high school students through STEM learning, with an emphasis on leading culturally relevant training. CARE also includes a virtual component that utilizes curriculum developed in partnership with RIT faculty member, Dr. Christina Goudreau Collison, professor of chemistry and materials science at the College of Science. The goal of the Chemistry and Culture Workbook, Lee added, is to engage students from diverse backgrounds, and encourage a sense of belonging within the fields of STEM and health science.

In this Q&A, Lee talks more about the program, its connection to AEOP and why she’s so passionate about serving native youth.

What is CARE?

CARE stands for Cultural and Academic Research Experience and is a program where the main component is about making culture first, but it’s also meaningful because students get research opportunities on top of it. The primary experience is through summer internships with in-person and virtual opportunities. The students who have participated in-person at NAU – seven have continued with the program through the academic year. AEOP is helping to support those students.

Fourteen students go to AISES in October to (highlight) their work, and in November, they’re participating in the “My Journey” program through the partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention. We also hold other activities such as monthly sessions for three hours a month on valuable topics like healthcare, lab experience and more to expose students to other areas of STEM and to get them excited to continue with summer programming.

With research, we held it in chemistry, and it grew into forestry, computer science, biology, physics and material science. We thought it was valuable to open up different research experiences, and mentors have been working well with the kids.

By the end of the summer, more holistically, we want them to realize how STEM fits into their indigenous cultural values that don’t necessarily have a conflict with western science, and so they can see there is a place for them in these fields. They get a stipend, college credit, and are nominated to go to AISES.

How did you learn about the Army Educational Outreach Program?

I’ve actually known about AEOP since I was in Bethesda (Maryland) working with NIH (National Institute of Health). I met with the secretary of defense, and AEOP was there with a special interest group. That’s when I told them about AISES and the opportunities it could provide. Then last year, I met with Donna and we found a way to work together. I had known about AEOP, but wasn’t sure how to tap into the system. So, the fact that we already had a program up and running, and actively recruiting underserved students within the same demographics that AEOP was looking for became a perfect match. They provide a stipend through the Army and it allowed us to expand our program so we may have more students.

*Donna Burnette is the director of AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships at Rochester Institute of Technology. She’s also the executive director of RIT’s K-12 University Center, which administers AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships on behalf of the U.S. Army.

Does this program help students have a smooth transition from high school into college?

Yes. We ask that in a pre- and post-survey about what they want to study and how the program has influenced them. Sometimes it hasn’t influenced them, but solidifies what they already thought they wanted to do. That’s why we work to match them with the field they’re interested in. So, we see a lot of buy-in from the students as they continue on their journeys, and end up also becoming huge recruiters for our program.

What tips do you have for other program coordinators working with AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships?

I think the biggest thing is making connections and doing more with students like community involvement and to provide an outlet for students to showcase their research, so it all comes to fruition for them. We hold a closing ceremony where they are able to present to their families in a formal setting, and it often prepares them for things like going to AISES.

Explain how your background helped spark a passion to provide opportunities for native youth.

I grew up on the Seneca Cattaraugus Reservation and went to RIT. I was afraid to leave, but wanted to get away. I ended up then going to the U of R and had my first postdoc experience at NIH where there was another Seneca Ph.D. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but found a path in academia though those experiences that allows me to give back. I applied to another program, as well, before I went to NAU, at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico, and did vaccine work and taught. I was engaged more with native students, which solidified what I wanted to get into.

I eventually had an opportunity with NAU, and remember walking around campus and seeing people who looked like me. For so long I was the only brown person in the room, so being in a department where I fit in being a heavy female and diverse, sold me on NAU. Being here is where I feel like I can make the most positive impact with native students.

The year I graduated with my Ph.D., I was one of 119 total Ph.D.s that were native, and half of those were in STEM. That statistic really hasn’t changed, so my motivation is to increase that number by getting younger students more into STEM by working with high schoolers that lead them to STEM majors and show them that the degree opportunities are endless. It’s really about showing students that there is a place for them, there are other people out there that look like them, but we have to stay in school to work towards a degree where they can then come back and serve their communities at some capacity.

*Calling it a “quarter-life crisis,” Lee said she also joined the Army National Guard after graduating with her master’s degree from the University of Rochester. Turning it into a side career that complements her life in a different way, Lee commissioned in the Army National Guard in 2009. Currently, she is a major in the U.S. Army Reserves stationed with the 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade in Honolulu.


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