Idaho Dr. Aaron Thomas, Navajo, is an associate professor
in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Idaho.
His research and work with Native students earned him a recent trip
to the White House in Washington, D.C. to receive the Presidential
Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award is based
on innovative research and community service.
said he received help from many people throughout his career. I
feel it is my responsibility to do the same for other students,
specifically Native students in the community. I believe my background
and my position provide unique opportunities to positively impact
the Native community. The best I can, I help them get their degrees
in science and engineering. In partnership with a lot of Native
staff and faculty on campus, were trying to not only bring
Native students to the university, but keep them here and help them
achieve their undergraduate degree.
outreach goals are to increase the number of students in science
and engineering, specifically Native American/Alaska Native students.
outreach programs include visits to area schools where he gives
a series of demonstration experiments hoping to spur interest in
science or engineering. One demonstration is making ice cream
out of liquid nitrogen. It doesnt say much about science and
engineering, but it looks really cool and hopefully is something
latest involvement was with a computer building class in conjunction
with the University of Alaska. The Alaska Native Science and Engineering
Program in Idaho was pioneered in Alaska and has spread to schools
in South Dakota, Hawaii, Washington, Montana and Idaho. Its
part of an indigenous alliance of schools, he explained,
to implement the same program in the respective states.
and Ed Galindo, Yaqui, director of the Natural Resources Tribal
Cooperative at the University of Idaho, are co-leaders in this program.
It works by visits to schools where high school students are assisted
in individually building computers.
have to put everything together: mother boards, memory cards, computer
chips, Thomas explained. The students get to keep the
computers, but first they have to complete a class in chemistry,
physics and trigonometry before they graduate. Its an incentive
for them to complete these classes, but also prepares them better
once they move on to college in the fields of science and engineering.
program has been successful with Alaska Natives and hopefully it
will be just as successful here. The first class in Idaho was held
last fall at Lapwai High School on the Nez Perce reservation; 10
students participated. The next class is planned for the Coeur dAlene
Reservation later this spring.
also tutors students at the university. If theyre struggling
in math theyre usually sent to me to help them get through
these classes. Im happy to do that. He also gives talks
and guides tours when visitors from the different tribes visit the
university, all aimed at making the school inviting to Native students
and encouraging enrollment.
is also involved with a summer program for Native high school students
through the Helping Orient Indian Students and Teachers, or HOIST,
program in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
The program is headed by Steve Martin, who is in charge of the Native
Center, and Thomas is one of the professors who works with students
on projects. Students spend eight weeks on campus, taking classes
in the morning and working on a research project in the afternoon.
Students dont receive college credit although they are paid,
and they also learn more about college life and research.
research was considered when he was chosen to receive the Presidential
Early Career Award, in addition to his work with students. That
research is difficult to summarize. One aspect involves separating
contaminant gases by using a mechanical separation mechanism.
long manned space missions the carbon dioxide that humans breathe
out must be removed from the air and recycled. People usually do
it with membranes that have to be regenerated or replaced. Were
trying to come up with a way to mechanically remove the contaminants
using flow oscillations, he explained.
a small scale hes looking at separating and detecting such
things as DNA or proteins in efficient ways. Say youre
in a remote area and taking a blood test. Usually thats sent
to a lab and results may take two or three weeks to be returned.
Were trying to get the results in a little hand-held device
right away. Were trying to do everything you can do in a laboratory
on the size of a microchip that can be done remotely.
combination of research and outreach programs earned Thomas a trip
to the White House to receive this prestigious award.
Aaron Thomas is flanked by Dr. Kathy Olsen, deputy director of the
National Science Foundation and Dr. John H. Marburger, III, director
of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the ceremony
to award Thomas with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists
and Engineers in Washington D.C.
Photo courtesy University of Idaho/Dr. Aaron Thomas
Aaron Thomas works with Dion Smith, a Shoshone Paiute, during last
summers Helping Orient Indian Students and Teachers program
where high school students spend eight weeks at the University of
Idaho in class and working on a research project.
Photo courtesy University of Idaho/Dr. Aaron Thomas