Finding her niche from her traditional background to success has sometimes been a rocky road for Raven Longwolf Alcott. But now a senior looking forward to graduation next spring, she has negotiated the obstacles and found success at The University of New Mexico as a researcher and environmental activist.
“I am from the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in northern New Mexico. I have lived among my community since birth,” Alcott said. “I have learned how to bake bread from my matriarchs and pick chile from my grandfathers. I swam in the Rio Grande with my cousins every summer and sled the hills with trash bags every winter. My upbringing on my homelands with my people shaped my values and trajectory in a career aimed to protect the environment and empower my people.
"Naturally, I was able to comprehend and witness how the land coincided with the health, sustainability, and existence of my culture and language. Introduced to climate change and its effects on Native land at a young age, I have continued to dig deeper into the issue dissecting and exposing all its intersections and inequalities in science and society. As I grow older, my sense of urgency to address climate change heightens.”
A fifth-year senior at UNM, Alcott is majoring in Environmental Science.
“Academically, I was accepted in the Ronald E. McNair Scholars and found a clearer picture of my future with the resources they provide,” she said. Also, as an undergraduate, she is part of the program that introduced her to research and provided necessary resources. received support and resources from New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation for three semesters. She has also been funded by the Leonard Research Fellowship which supports undergraduate research in the Earth and Planetary Sciences.
Starting out at UNM wasn’t easy.
“As a first-generation student, it was at first hard to navigate higher education. I struggled with everything from completing financial aid documents to knowing where to look for help. Living away from my family, home, and community was extremely hard on my emotional and spiritual capacities. I often found myself depressed and anxious turning to destructive behavior to cope. Dealing with so much hardship and challenges at the ripe age of 19, I finally sought out resources in the UNM community,” Alcott recalled.
She joined the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Chapter at UNM, eventually becoming the co-president. She also became a leader for the UNM Leaders for Environmental Action and Foresight coalition where she has led climate advocacy initiatives.
"Thinking of research to dive deeper into this life’s delicacies deepens my appreciation for my culture and people while granting me tools and information to make change. I have so many aspirations that I hope to achieve within my career which are all guided by curiosity, cultural values, family, and social justice for my community."
– Raven Alcott
This summer Alcott was an intern at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she worked on research entitled The seasonal cycle of humidity in the changing United States Southwest climate with MIT doctoral fellows.
“As a student with the MIT Summer Research Program, I was given to opportunity to work with faculty at the very place so many climate science foundational concepts were discovered,” she said. “Prior to attending MIT, my research looked at abrupt climate changes in 480 thousand-year-old sediments using geochemical analysis. My research for Summer 2022 had now shifted lenses to recent climate changes in the last 45 years using climatological observations. It was a major change not only in the time aspect but also in methodology. It was challenging and rewarding to combine my past knowledge and what I was currently learning.”
Alcott continued, “My research at MIT informed my ongoing research at UNM by providing an avenue for understanding, interpreting, and assessing climate changes. As we know, the climate is changing constantly, whether we see that in lake sediments or climate observations. I was able to link my work at MIT to UNM through the refining of climate models through recorded observations whether it be 480 thousand years ago or the past decade. Climate models are becoming extremely important in modeling our environment with anthropogenic forcings. Therefore, refining them and testing their credibility is crucial to increasing our confidence in climate modeling systems.”
Back at UNM now, Alcott plans to explore "traditional ecological knowledge systems," or TEK, in her graduate studies.
“Traditional ecological knowledge – TEK − is a new term in academia and can be interpreted in various ways. From my understanding and experiences, TEK is the empowerment of tribal nation’s knowledges of the land and ecosystems that have been used and understood from time immemorial,” she explained. “TEK recognizes the sovereignty of tribal nations and who, what, and how their knowledges are shared, utilized, and sustained. This is important because Western academia has often undervalued, overlooked, or simply ignored Indigenous science because of racism, discrimination, and colonialism. TEK is land-based and varies upon the community of people and their homelands they inhabit. I am not necessarily studying them directly but using what I have learned with my labs in Environmental Science to see how I can utilize the land-based approach and frameworks.”
Alcott is looking for solutions for issues facing her community and the rest of the Southwest.
"My community is very tied to water. Specifically, the Rio Grande that runs through our land. Recently, we have seen the scarcity of water become a scary issue, especially in the desert. With onset climate change, it is understood that the United States Southwest will get drier with increased temperature and decreased relative humidity. Mitigating the effects of water scarcity in my community is significant, as it is directly related to our being, language, and livelihoods. Looking for ways to promote the health of our ecosystems, tending our crops, and maximizing the utilization of our water will be crucial in sustaining an environment that is not annihilated when we endure water loss.”
Alcott plans to continue her research through her standing as an Indigenous woman.
“I really enjoy research. There was a quote I once heard by [Director of Research at Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University] Shawn Wilson that said, ‘Research is ceremony.’ I often reflect on that and my role in academia as an Indigenous woman. How do I exist and thrive in a system that was ‘fundamentally designed to destroy me,’ as a quote from the book For Brown Girls with Sharps Edges and Tender Hearts says? Thinking of research to dive deeper into this life’s delicacies deepens my appreciation for my culture and people while granting me tools and information to make change. I have so many aspirations that I hope to achieve within my career which are all guided by curiosity, cultural values, family, and social justice for my community. In my career, I plan to continue to inform my curiosities through non-profit work or working as a climate scientist for a national laboratory, but I ultimately hope to return home and work in our environmental resources department.”
UNM, with its resources and opportunities, is helping Alcott achieve her plans for the future.
“Within my department, I have met so many faculty that are dedicated to helping students pursue a career in research. My mentors always made sure that I had access to funding, lab equipment, and mentorship which was crucial in establishing a foundation in my research path,” she said. “Prior to being accepted into the McNair Scholars program, I had no clue what I wanted to do. The program really heightened my passions and provided me a pathway to pursue them. With my research background as an undergraduate, I have found that my participation in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference was necessary in making me comfortable with challenging skills like public speaking and effective communication.”
Alcott cited her professors and mentors, starting with Albert and Mary Jane Black Professor of Hydrology Gary Weissman, and Earth & Planetary Sciences Chair and Professor Peter Fawcett, who both cheered her on and encouraged her Indigenous viewpoint. She also noted UROC coordinator Jennifer Payne, Paula Watt from the UNM Gallup campus, Environmental Science professor Joseph Galewsky, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences David Gutzler, assistant professor in the department of Earth & Planetary Sciences Corinne Myers, and Kevin Brown, former program specialist at the Indigenous Nations Library Program.
“My first leaf of gratitude will always go to Gary Weissmann. The first moment I stepped in his class he has always been open, welcoming, and encouraging of my Indigenous science background and identity. During the pandemic, he would hop on Zoom at his first spot of availability to go over a concept I was struggling with, even if it wasn’t for his class. When Indigenous scientist faculty were visiting, he always made sure to set up a meeting for me. For my research presentations and poster sessions he would always be in the crowd cheering and engaged. Every letter of recommendation Gary has written for me has always been awarded. I am so grateful for Gary in my life, and I will spend a lifetime paying him back for everything he has done for me.
"Second, is my research mentor Peter Fawcett. My first ever research experience is with the friendly Canadian fellow Peter, and I am eternally grateful for such an introduction to a field that I have always felt was intimidating. He was so friendly and enthusiastic about me joining his research. I have always been shy, but Peter continuously pushed me to present at conferences, and apply for research fellowships and programs no matter what. Being a Native American woman, I always felt like an imposter in my field or that I was inadequate. Peter always made sure that I was listened to, understood, and welcomed in the field.”
Alcott also cited her Native American peers for helping her succeed at UNM.
“One thing that I will never forget is the American Indian community at UNM. UNM has many Native American students at the institution, and I think that the community within has been very significant in my achievements. Leaving my tribal community to attend college was destabilizing but I was able to fall on my support system of Native American friends to ground myself and move forward together. UNM is also great in that it is filled with so much diversity. The diversity was important in expanding my scope and understanding of social issues that are plaguing other communities. I have been able to develop connections and relationships with many others further reemphasizing the sense of community and solidarity.”