BLaST faculty mentor Dr. Linda Nicholas-Figueroa awarded 2020 AAAS Fellow

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By Amy Topkok

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Biomedical Learning and Student Training (UAF BLaST) program supports researchers all over Alaska through many funding opportunities. Linda Nicholas-Figueroa, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology and chemistry at Iḷisaġvik College, is a BLaST faculty mentor. She is being recognized for her continuing dedication to introducing undergraduate students from all over Alaska to new levels of understanding in science by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as a 2020 AAAS Fellow, one of the highest honors a faculty may receive. The AAAS announced their list of AAAS Fellows on November 24, 2020, and will have a virtual ceremony February 8, 2021.

Iḷisaġvik College is in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, formerly known as Barrow. It is Alaska’s only Tribal college and was created in 1986. Nicholas-Figueroa is one of thirteen full-time faculty at Ilisaġvik and is the only science faculty. Her lab supports Anatomy & Physiology (A&P), chemistry, biology, molecular biology and microbiology. Here is her story.

Biomedical research and entering STEM fields is challenging but rewarding. Each scientists’ path into science varies, but one common theme frequently emerges when talking with scientists about how they got started: they often have been inspired by other scientists and gained experiences through STEM, but life experiences also shape their pathway.

Nicholas-Figueroa shared that being in a military family has helped her in many ways. Although she has lived in many states including Texas and Mississippi, she spent her formative years in Idaho growing up in a predominantly white and rural community. She recalls, “in all my classes, I was the only one of color [the only Black child]. I was very shy and had not a lot of friends. I remember a lot of people from Mexico who worked on the cattle farms. A lot of those kids did not go to school. Knowing this, it shaped me to accept all people regardless of skin color.”

This core belief combined with a developing passion for knowledge inspired her to keep moving forward in education. Nicholas-Figueroa is a first-generation college student. Her father was a paramedic and later a mechanic, and her mother started off with odd jobs, and worked her way to be a departmental store supervisor while raising six kids. Nicholas-Figueroa started her bachelor’s degree at Boise State University-Boise and completed a Bachelor of Science degree at UAF. She remembers her early college experience as being in mostly all white classrooms.

It was not until joining the Army in between college experiences that she was exposed to different races from all over the country and from across the globe. Nicholas-Figueroa was stationed in Germany, and she shared, “it tests you when you are within a completely different culture. You have to figure out who you are and learn how to live a life that is true to you.”

Now, fast forward to 2010, when Nicholas-Figueroa now lives and works in Utqiaġvik, the northernmost city of the United States on the Arctic coast. She feels that she is a “minority in an institution that works with minorities.”  Through the AAAS Fellow recognition, she is recognized for her “20 years of excellence in teaching and mentoring rural and Alaska Native students and for her scholarship on culturally sensitive and place-based approaches to learning science.” Utqiaġvik is a community of about 5,000 people and has a very diverse population that includes Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and many others. Sixty three percent of the population are Iñupiaq, one of the 20 federally recognized Alaska Native groups. Nicholas-Figueroa shared that when conducting research in the Arctic, “it shouldn’t matter what color you are; you should still help people [in your research and in life].” She is one of two Black female faculty with Ph.D.s in Alaska; the other one is located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Nicholas-Figueroa credits her mentor Lawrence Duffy, Ph.D., to encourage her to get her Ph.D. at UAF. She described Duffy as one who encourages students of all ethnicities to work in science. There was a time when negative experiences in science had Nicholas-Figueroa second-guessing her goal of getting her doctorate, but it was Duffy who kept her going. Duffy was able to help Nicholas-Figueroa successfully obtain an Intramural Research Training Fellowship at NIH at the Tumor Biology Laboratory of the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, which helped her realize her life-long desire to help support students through teaching and inspire them to enter biomedical research.

Nicholas-Figueroa has mentored many students through Ilisaġvik College and Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) courses, where she has coordinated many summer camps involving students from all over Alaska. For 11 years, she also taught science courses at RAHI, a competitive six-week summer early college program held at UAF for rural and Alaska Native juniors and seniors in high school. RAHI, established in 1983, addresses the high drop-out rate of rural and Alaska Native students from college at UAF. Nicholas-Figueroa shared how she helps students, “I continue to help rural and Alaska Native students by helping with applying for scholarships, but also through the many summer research camps I’ve coordinated.”

Nicholas-Figueroa understands the challenges of educating Alaska Native youth and college students in the Arctic. She shared that there are simply not enough research opportunities to offer them. The summer camps are  “often the first opportunity for students from rural Alaska to experience scientific research directly from those in STEM fields,” she said. “I want students to not feel left out if they have an interest in science, then we can let them in the door.” She believes that students need to understand that they are life-long learners who can conduct research in real-world issues that relate to them and their environment.

Nicholas-Figueroa remembers a student from one of her summer camps, Samantha Wade, a UAF junior and current BLaST Scholar. “She’s got a remarkable story of her coming in from Wainwright. She was in my first STEM camp. I took her to SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) national conference when she was in eighth grade. She was incredible back then and is still incredible now in BLaST with all the things she’s accomplished.” Nicholas-Figueroa also states that although she does not have a high number of students, she works with her students directly in her research projects.

Cultivating a lasting mentorship can be difficult. One of the things that Nicholas-Figueroa is most proud of is the longevity of the mentorships she has with students who started in a summer camp and continued college. “To see somebody like Samantha to start off with my STEM camp and now being a BLaST Scholar and going to graduate from college a semester early and has all these ambitions for doing great things. It makes me feel so proud.” Six of the students she has mentored in research were offered BLaST Scholarships. Of those students who have taken her courses, five are attending the Allied Health program at UAF, five are working at the local hospital in Utqiaġvik, one is a physician’s assistant, and two more now attend nursing programs.

Nicholas-Figueroa has received many BLaST funding awards for her research and to Iḷisaġvik College which include four equipment awards, two curriculum awards – one for her Methods in Molecular Biology summer camp and the other for her Environmental Health in a Changing Arctic summer camp, both for credit at Iḷisaġvik and UAF, a renovation award for her lab, a One-Health workshop, and support as a faculty pilot project (FPP) awardee in the first two years of BLaST. She has been a BLaST Advisory Committee member since 2014. She also acquired the NSF Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP) research grant in 2016 titled, “Arctic microbes population abundance and the effects of a warming climate”, based on preliminary data from her BLaST FPP. She is collaborating with many other female scientists including individuals at other universities.

 “BLaST opened up doors for me and for Iḷisaġvik in research. There are so many researchers that come to Utqiaġvik to study the ice and the environment, the animals, and the people here. Being able to work at other colleges and universities and being approached about research, I can help create new partnerships, and integrate Indigenous knowledge into those fields,” she said. 

“I’m one person all the way up here in the Arctic,” she related, but it does not stop her from having long days of teaching, working on her own research, and continuing working with her institution and with partnership institutions and programs such as UAF and BLaST.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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