Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Making a Difference

Sophia Cleland (pictured at left) is a population geneticist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. She received a B.S. in chemistry with a biochemistry emphasis at Arizona State University in Tempe and a master's degree in genetics from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She is one of a handful of Native Americans to have ever received an advanced degree in genetics. Her current duties as a research assistant to pediatric rheumatologist James Jarvis include finding possible genetic and/or environmental causation to the severity of rheumatic diseases in Native American communities. Rheumatic diseases are more severe in Native Americans--affecting more joints and the symptoms progressing more rapidly than in Caucasians--but the reasoning for this is poorly understood because most of the medical information is based on Caucasians. Ms. Cleland's research hopes to correct that disparity.

Q. How did you get started in science?

A. My dad, a California Mission Indian, was an electrical engineer, so I was exposed to some kind of science early on. My mom, a Montana Sioux, used to take me up to her reservation, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes reservation in Montana, during the summers when I was a child. The reservation sits atop an oil reserve. I noticed the tap water people were drinking had a layer of oil floating on top. When we would go back to Phoenix, I'd see a completely different life. I just wanted to do something about it after a while.

Q. You wanted to make a difference?

A. Yes, because I was comparing and contrasting the two worlds all the time. I felt there needed to be some equity and some justice to what was happening. Something had to be done about all the pollution, the exploitation, the social and medical problems--all the horrible things going on in Indian Country. I wanted to become a person of scientific authority so that I could say this is a real problem that needs to be addressed, because nobody else was addressing it.

My first exposure to research was with the Ecology Research for Undergraduates (ECOREU) Program at Arizona State University, rotating through different labs. Looking back at that experience, it wasn't complex, but it was a good way to develop my appreciation for the scientific method as an undergraduate. Later, I joined the lab of my undergraduate advisor, who became my main mentor throughout my undergraduate career.

Q. What's his or her name?

A. Her name is Teri Markow. She is an evolutionary geneticist focusing on speciation in the desert fruit fly, Drosophila mojavensis. I loved her lab. She wasn't in the ECOREU Program, but she ran the Minority Access to Research Careers Program at Arizona State University. I joined her lab in 1995 and graduated in 1998. I still keep in contact with her today. She's been a tremendous mentor. She's given me a lot of freedom, but she's never let me go too far. She pushed me to spend summers doing research abroad at Cornell and at Stanford. The research I did at Stanford (evolutionary genetics in humans and chimps) had an impact on what I'm doing now

Q. How's that?

A. I was working for Peter Parham who works on the Class I gene of the Major Histocompatibility Complex. I was starting to become more interested in medical research. That's when I realized immunology can really help me understand what may be different in Native Americans that's making some of these diseases much more prevalent. I thought I could be better able to sift it out than somebody who'd been at Harvard all their life and never been to an Indian Reservation.

Q. How did you get from there to Cornell?

A. When I was applying to graduate school, I was looking for someone who specialized in the genetics of type 2 diabetes in American Indians, but no one existed at any university. My two main choices for graduate school became the University of Washington and Cornell. I kick myself now for going to Cornell because it was mainly just to impress people. Looking back, either program was prestigious, but the fact that I was the first person in my family to go to a major academic university and then to an Ivy League school, was the "American Dream." I hit a brick wall when I went to Cornell. No one would help me with applying for grants or with the ideas I had for the type of project I was burning to do.

Q. So, did you immediately go to the University of Oklahoma?

A. I knew I was going to leave Cornell with my master's. I didn't know what I was going to do afterward. I was considering trying to find someone else to work with and starting an independent lab based on the training I had already received. Then James Jarvis contacted me from the University of Oklahoma saying he remembered me from a meeting in Washington, D.C. I said the research you're doing is what I really would like to do, but there's no Ph.D. program out there for me. He told me, we'll figure it out. It's strange how it all came together, but I am able to do some evolutionary work as well as immunology and genetics.

Q. What would you recommend for other indigenous people who are trying to pursue science or who are currently pursuing science?

A. Number one is the intimidation factor--don't be intimidated. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time and that's the one thing that's always kept me grounded. I realized that scientists may know a lot about one specialized field, but they may not know anything about where you're coming from. Even though they have a certain type of knowledge, you also have knowledge. The acquisition and application of knowledge is universal.

Additionally, never forget that everyone is entitled to information. Therefore, we, as indigenous people, have as much right to be among the recipients and contributors to modern science as anyone. In mentoring other Native American students, it is important to say such things because we are often categorized as primitive people who are expected to get lost in the cracks of modern society.

One example of how our contributions have been overlooked is in the field of ecology in the United States. The scientific reports are at most 200 years old, while Native Americans have been here at least a couple thousand years. There are a lot of things that we as indigenous people can contribute and we don't have to be exploited to do so. We have the intellectual capabilities to succeed when we are provided opportunities for access into modern science. We can get a Ph.D., although I don't always agree that we actually need it to validate the knowledge that we can contribute, but that's the way the rules are today. Rules, however, do not confine everyone.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at