A Return to Campus Means Greater Opportunities

Mickki Garrity collects soil samples at Hovander Homestead Park in Whatcom County, WA. Photo courtesy of Salish Sea Research Center.
Mickki Garrity collects soil samples at Hovander Homestead Park in Whatcom County, WA. Photo courtesy of Salish Sea Research Center.

This autumn, many colleges and universities which had closed to in-person learning due to the coronavirus pandemic are reopening, bringing students and faculty onto campuses for face-to-face classes. I was able to begin the Native Environmental Science program at Northwest Indian College (NWIC) while living in another state because of the pandemic. Prior to 2020, very few classes at NWIC were offered online, with most courses being held at the main campus and seven additional extended sites in tribal communities in Washington and Idaho. Like so many colleges, however, NWIC and their staff were forced by the pandemic to learn new technology and adapt quickly to an online-only environment. This has expanded the reach of NWIC and allowed many students not living in campus areas to participate in lectures and complete coursework toward a degree. For this, I am very grateful.

As much as online learning has included and empowered students and organizations, there are some kinds of learning that cannot happen online. This is why, when NWIC reopened this quarter to a limited number of in-person classes for fully vaccinated faculty and students, I jumped at the opportunity to attend.

There aren’t yet many students on campus. NWIC, like many Native institutions, is cautious about the number of in-person activities right now because the pandemic is still an issue, especially for elders and folks with medical conditions. It feels odd to be one of a small handful of students on a campus that can accommodate hundreds. Being on campus, however, affords opportunities that just don’t exist online.

I’ve begun an internship at the Salish Sea Research Center (SSRC), a research facility located on NWIC’s campus that conducts various research projects in support of the Lummi Nation and other Coast Salish people. This includes monitoring shellfish toxins and research into longfin smelt known as hooligans, a small but vital part of the Coast Salish food web. The other interns and I are the first students to participate in this way in two years.

To help us learn the laboratory skills and research methods to support the SSRC’s work, we have begun SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science), a program supported by the University of Pittsburgh and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s science education division. NWIC is one of four tribal colleges that currently participates in the program, which aims to give students hands-on experience in the lab while contributing to genetic research of phages, or bacteria-killing viruses. So far, thousands of undergraduate students from over 70 institutions have participated in the SEA-PHAGES program (see this article about the impact of the program).

Dr. John Rombold (faculty) and Mickki Garrity (student) of Northwest Indian College preparing soil samples. Photo courtesy Salish Sea Research Center.
Dr. John Rombold (faculty) and Mickki Garrity (student) of Northwest Indian College preparing soil samples. Photo courtesy Salish Sea Research Center.

Yesterday, we collected soil samples from a nearby park and demonstration farm. From those samples, we’ve isolated the viruses living in that soil, which we’re attempting to culture using Microbacterium foliorum as a host bacteria. Once we are able to isolate and replicate sufficient amounts of bacteriophages, then we can extract their DNA, and send off the genetic material for sequencing. Doing this work means that we’re learning how to complete these processes in a lab, but also, it may mean contributing to the growing body of knowledge about phages.

I’m beyond excited to have the opportunity to learn among Indigenous scientists and gain hands-on experience doing scientific research in a tribal context. While I remain grateful for the way our institutions and colleges have adapted to online tools for meeting and learning, I hope we don’t lose sight of the invaluable opportunities that can only be fulfilled when we are able to learn together, face to face.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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