Hoonah Students Travel for AISES and Whalefest

Over the past couple months, the environmental office has facilitated two trips to help students explore career options for after they graduate—one to sunny Palm Springs for the annual meeting of American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and another to blustery Sitka for WhaleFest.


Thanks to funding and coordination from Sealaska, we were able to take two crew members from this summer’s AYS crew to the 2022 AISES conference in Palm Springs, California. Susan Bradford and Theodore Elliott joined a cohort of AYS crew members from Kake, Angoon, and Prince of Wales, along with over 2,000 Indigenous high school and college students, educators, and professionals. The three-day conference focused on educational, professional, and workforce development for Indigenous peoples in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies and careers. Participants were able to join a variety of talks, exhibits, and activities put on by a diverse range of educational institutions, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, Tribes, corporations, and Indigenous-owned businesses.

The trip was a great opportunity for the Hoonah crew to meet and connect with peers in the Southeast that they may see again if they pursue a career in STEM. It was also valuable for them to know they have the support of not only local tribal entities like HIA and Sealaska, but also the larger AISES community for scholarships, internships, advice, and networking opportunities.


HCS seniors Teresa Lewis and Abby Stevenson alongside HIA’s Environmental Education Coordinator Julian Narvaez and freshman Dietrich Lewis on their trip to WhaleFest

The beginning of November was marked by WhaleFest, a long-weekend of biology talks, lab tours and engineering workshops in Sitka. Before the conference began, the students spent a day with environmental staff from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab (STA-ERL) learning about all the different projects to keep Southeast residents safe. They shucked shellfish, learned how to test them for the toxins that cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, harvested Hudson Bay Tea with an STA Elder and tested out the protocols for a marine debris survey.

The theme for WhaleFest this year was How it’s Made: Courting, Reproduction and Babies, and included everything from seaweed to jellyfish to humpback whales. The students were all particularly impressed by the talk by Desiree Jackson, a registered Dietitian based in Juneau who talked about the benefits of eating traditional foods and how eating salmon, herring eggs, seaweed and seal oil can drastically reduce the risk of diabetes and other chronic health issues. They were also all rather amused by the talk by Matt Wilson, who’s in charge of Sitka Sound Science Center aquarium, on the jellyfish reproductive cycle. After each day’s talks, the students participated in break-out sessions with the scientists to ask them for more information about their research and career paths. While Teresa wasn’t sure whether that or learning about dolphins was her favorite part, she said it helped make the science feel more personal.

In the spring, HIA will be collaborating with Hoonah City Schools to welcome the inaugural class of the Rural Alaskan Students in One-Health Research, a program designed by UAS in collaboration with tribes across the region to help students design and implement their own environmental science research projects. It’s founded on a principle that Hoonah residents should all be familiar with—the idea that the oceans, the land and the people are all connected and if one branch is struggling, it’ll effect all three. While the team is still considering their options for projects, they’re looking forward to hitting the snowy beaches and starting to get some field experience as they monitor Hoonah’s natural resources and prove that science is for everyone.

Now that the weather’s getting wintery we’re planning on staying in town, but after a pair of trips off the island, there’s no place like home.

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