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Beyond Chemistry: FLC professor, Joslynn Lee, works to increase Native American representation in the sciences
Beyond Chemistry: FLC professor, Joslynn Lee, works to increase Native American representation in the sciences

Beyond Chemistry: FLC professor, Joslynn Lee, works to increase Native American representation in the sciences

By Dorothy Elder Indy Staff Writer

Monday, November 30, 2020 | Number of views (11720)

It was important to Dr. Joslynn Lee, Fort Lewis College assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, when she received the call that informed her that she was selected to join a national cohort of scientists all chosen to be featured on a STEM Trading Card.

The call came from Science Delivered, a national science education non-profit, who provides a database of people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, all featured on their STEM trading cards, Lee said. 

Each card includes a person and facts about their STEM career in a classic trading card format and are distributed by the organization to elementary school students and can also be purchased online, according to the company’s website. 

Lee is featured in Series 2 of the trading cards, which were released in early Oct. 

Lee, who is affiliated with the DinĂ©, Haaku and K’awaiki tribes, is excited to be represented as a Native female biochemist, and is hopeful that seeing someone that looks like her on the card might inspire younger Native Americans to pursue careers in science, she said. 

Lee is passionate about increasing Indigenous representation in the sciences, she said. 

In the year that Lee earned her PhD from Northeastern University in chemistry, five other Native Americans did the same nationally. Lee knew four of them, she said. 

After focusing on outreach for several years following her graduate education, working as a data science educator for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and a science education fellow at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Lee decided that she wanted to teach, she said. 

In her own education, Lee struggled internally with elements of chemistry and biochemistry that occasionally conflicted with her Native American culture, such as the way certain examples were used in class or the inaccurate speculations she had to endure as other scientists looked at data sets that excluded or misrepresented her demographic, she said. 

These experiences, along with a drive to teach that has always existed in Lee, ultimately lead her to become a professor, she said. 

In her own post-undergraduate education and career, Lee was exposed to a series of overwhelmingly white institutions, she said. She wanted to teach somewhere with a diverse student population, so she returned to her alma-mater, Fort Lewis College, where she had received her B.S. in Biochemistry and Cellular & Molecular Biology, and began teaching there in fall of 2019, she said. 

“I wanted to work with students who look like me, or have a background related to mine,” she said. 

Lee, who was a first-generation student, tries to make her classes comfortable for students coming from similar situations by trying to keep her classes relevant to the student’s interests and creating engaging lessons, she said. 

In order to do this, Lee checks in with students throughout the semester by administering surveys to her classes throughout the semester that ask the students about any potential challenges or lack of resources that they might be facing, she said. Then, Lee reaches out to students that indicate they need extra support, she said. 

Since joining FLC, Lee has worked to make the campus a more inclusive environment. Currently, Lee is part of the FLC history committee, which works to progress from FLC’s historic role as a Native American boarding school, she said. 

This semester has been particularly unique, as Lee is recovering from brain surgery while teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Lee, who had already undergone brain surgery once to address her Chiari malformation, a condition that causes the brain to abnormally push downward against the brainstem, got surgery again in August after a growing tumor was found in her olfactory groove, she said. 

Lee switched all her courses for the fall 2020 semester online so that she could optimally recover, which was challenging at first, with Lee experiencing slow speech, and loss of memory and focus, she said. 

With extra note-taking and preparation time for her classes, she has now hurdled most of the obstacles that the surgery has thrown her way, with the exception of loss of smell, she said. 

Teaching chemistry online has been interesting since usually, a hands-on lab section is taught jointly with the lecture portion, Lee said. 

Lee has designed “chemistry kitchen style labs”,  using Kool-Aid to teach concentration levels and molarity, pancakes and crepes to understand the reaction of baking powder and sugar to understand density, she said.


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