Training the Next Generation of Indigenous Data Scientists

“Native DNA is so sought after that people look for proxy data, and one of the big proxy data is the microbiome,” Yracheta said. “If you are a native person, you must consider all these variables if you want to protect your people and your culture.”

In a presentation at the conference, Joslynn Lee, a member of the Navajo, Laguna Pueblo, and Acoma Pueblo nations and a biochemist at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, spoke about her experience tracking changes in microbial communities in rivers that experienced a Sewage spill from a mine in Silverton, Colorado. Dr. Lee also offered practical advice on how to plan a microbiome analysis, from collecting a sample to processing it.

In a data science career panel, Rebecca Pollet, a biochemist and member of the Cherokee Nation, noted how many conventional pharmaceutical drugs were developed based on the traditional knowledge and plant medicine of the natives. The antimalarial drug quinine, for example, was developed from the bark of a Cinchona tree species, which the Quechua people historically used as medicine. Dr. Pollet, who studies the effects of traditional foods and medicines on the gut microbiome, asked, “How can we honor that traditional knowledge and make up for what’s been covered up?”

One participant, the elder Lakota Les Ducheneaux, added that he believed medicine derived from traditional knowledge mistakenly eliminated the prayers and rituals that traditionally accompany treatment, making the medicine less effective. “You constantly have to weigh the scientific part of medicine against the cultural and spiritual part of what you are doing,” he said.

Over the course of the IndigiData conference, participants also discussed ways to take charge of their own data to serve their communities.

Mason Grimshaw, a data scientist and board member for Indigenous in AI, spoke about his research with linguistic data at the Wakashan International AI Consortium. The consortium, led by an engineer, Michael Running Wolf, is developing automatic speech recognition artificial intelligence for the Wakashan languages, an endangered family of languages ​​spoken among various First Nations communities. Researchers believe that automatic speech recognition models can preserve fluency in Wakashan languages ​​and reinvigorate their use by future generations.

Add Comment