Saturday, May 28, 2022
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Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Karletta Chief

Happy Earth Week 2018, UMKC! This week, we reflect on the miracle of our planet and the work of environmentalists and conservationists to preserve its natural beauty. One woman in STEM who knows the importance of Mother Earth is hydrologist Dr. Karletta Chief.

Karletta Daané Chief was born in Black Mesa, Arizona to the Diné, or Navajo, people. She grew up in a house with five siblings and no electricity or running water.

No one in Chief’s immediate family had attended college, but her parents valued education and encouraged her to pursue her degree. Having grown up in a population heavily affected by environmental changes, Chief decided to pursue a degree in environmental engineering.

After high school, she completed a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in 1998 and a master’s degree in 2000, both from Stanford University.

She didn’t forget her heritage, returning home to participate in cultural obligations, she won Miss Navajo Nation in 2000. Unlike beauty pageants, the Miss Navajo Nation competition is a celebration of the Navajo culture and includes answering quiz-like questions about the Navajo way of life, demonstrating the proper way to butcher a sheep, and speaking the Navajo language, all while wearing traditional Navajo dress.

Chief returned to academia and completed her doctorate in hydrology and water resources from the University of Arizona in 2007. She spent three years in Las Vegas as a post doctorate fellow with the Desert Research Institute.

In 2011, Chief took a faculty position at the University of Arizona, where she continues to work today. She is currently an assistant professor and specialist in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. She focuses on watershed hydrology, unsaturated flow in arid environments, and the effects of both natural and human changes on soil hydrology.

Chief continues to work closes with the Navajo Nation, using her knowledge of the environment to study the risks climate change poses for indigenous people, and acting as an ambassador between the Navajo and science communities.

After the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, Chief and her colleagues worked to provide safety information to affected people and inform federal agencies of the impact spills have on indigenous communities.

Chief was part of two grants for environmental justice work worth over $1 million. In her career, she’s been awarded more than $6.2 million for research funds.

She’s also won numerous awards, including the Stanford University 2013 Distinguished Alumni Scholar Award, the 2015 Native American 40 Under 40 Award by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, and the 2016 American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Professional of the Year Award.

Chief’s also a member of the Soil Science Society of America, the AISES and the Indigenous Women Science Network.

Society owes a great debt to environmentalists and conservationists, like Chief. Work of scientists like Wangari Maathai, Rachel Carson and Carolina Peñalva-Arana continues to remind us of the power and responsibility we have as humans to protect Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

Though we celebrate this work once a year on Earth Day, our obligation to the planet is a full-time job. If you want to get involved in Earth Week activities on campus, check out the UMKC Department of Geosciences’ Facebook (UMKCGeosci) or Twitter (UMKC_Geosci).

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Monday in the Women’s Center, 2 – 3 p.m.


(Photo Source: UA Global Initiatives – University of Arizona)




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