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Meet a Geophysicist: Jenny Nakai

5 minutes

When I started getting interested in engineering and science, I think my strongest motivation was that I wanted to be useful and to solve problems. My mom emphasized when I was younger-- and my dad as well-- that it's important in your life to do something that people can use in some way. On the reservation, they really emphasize education for young people. There's an emphasis on bringing back what you learn to your tribe, and college graduates who go to different cities, they go outside the reservation. When they come back and work for the tribe or a company, people are happy to see them, and they personally thank them and say, "You're doing something really good for your people." And when I expressed interest in going to get a graduate degree, everybody was supportive of me. When I was working for the Environmental Protection Agency, I was exposed to many of the environmental legacy issues that are on the reservation. In the '50s and '60s, oil and gas companies, big power plants, natural gas compressor stations, a lot of that industry came to the reservation and set up leases and infrastructure. And at the time, there wasn't really anybody from the tribe that was educated enough to deal with some of the technical environmental issues having to do with resource extraction. And there was also a lot of coal mining. So, when a lot of these original leases were signed, the tribe didn't really have any expertise within its own membership in order to assess some of the impact of these issues. And so, historically, you know, maybe some things weren't done as well as they should have been, and that has left us with a lot of environmental issues that haven't been addressed. When you live there, when you're from there, you have a different understanding of the people and culture, and a lot of outside consultants who are experts in geophysics or geology or engineering don't have that perspective. And there's something that can be added from integrating that into how the tribe currently addresses many of their technical problems. One of my interests is actually looking at how tribal members can actually get technical expertise and go back and help the tribe and be able to educate council delegates and the people in government on issues in a way that they understand, and help educate the public. Just from my experience working with the tribe, if you get people who are technical experts, sometimes they don't know how to communicate their information to a level where your typical Navajo, who comes to their local government chapter, they don't communicate it in a way that they can understand. That's definitely one of my motivations in graduate school, and in life in general, is to be able to communicate what I know. No matter how complicated it is, I really believe that you can communicate what you know to everybody-- the general public, small children, older Navajo grandmas, and people who don't speak English. There's a way to talk to them. I really didn't like math when I was in high school. I didn't do well in some classes, but after I graduated and I started taking college classes, I discovered that I loved math, and I did well in it. I think that's an interesting story for younger children or high schoolers who think, "I'm not good at this." Maybe you haven't had the right teachers, or maybe you'll look at it differently when you're a bit older, a bit more mature. So, I think that's kind of what led me down that path. Solving problems as an engineer is important, and with a Ph.D. in geophysics, you can solve bigger, more important problems and broader problems related to earth science.

Funding to purchase and make this educational production accessible was provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

PH:1-800-USA-LEARN (V) or WEB: www.ed.gov.

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Jenny Nakai discusses how she uses her understanding of engineering and science as a means to help Navajo communities. Today she is committed to sharing with others what she has learned through her studies and to helping scientists communicate their findings to the broader community. Part of the “EarthScope Chronicles” series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

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