Growing up on the Cattaraugus reservation, Dr. Naomi Lee was used to being surrounded by people who shared similar backgrounds and experiences to hers.
However, upon leaving the reservation for college at Rochester Institute of Technology, Lee struggled with her identity.
“But as a student, that self-identity and not understanding why I was different from the other students at my university, it was really a struggle at first, balancing self-identity and cultural identity,” says Lee, who is an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University.
Lee says although she didn’t experience any racism as a person of color, microaggressions were apparent to her.
Soon after graduating, Lee decided to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Rochester. However, after being unsure about her career path and both of her parents falling ill, Lee took time off school.
She decided to join the Army National Guard in hopes of eventually pursuing a career within the government, such as working for the FBI or CIA. But while she was in training and out of school, she realized how much she enjoyed science.
When her parents passed away, she decided to go back to school and finish her degree. Now, Lee chooses to honor both her parents and her community through the work she carries out within her career.
Lee applies her training from both her undergraduate and graduate degrees to issues that are relevant to Native American health. She has since pursued projects pertaining to both the biomedical and public health fields.
Upon completion of her doctorate at the University of Rochester, Lee became a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, where her research focused on the treatment and detection of human herpesvirus-6 (HHV-6).
During her fellowship, Lee also noticed that there weren’t a lot of Native Americans in senior level positions so there was a lot of pressure put on her and others.
Lee did a second fellowship in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the University of New Mexico, where she simultaneously taught a general chemistry lab at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.
Last year, Lee was offered the position as an assistant professor within the chemistry and biochemistry department at Northern Arizona University. She was drawn to the institution because she would be able to work with both native faculty and students.
“The breadth of her expertise, normally faculty have one or maybe two disciplines that they are strong in, but she’s got the chemistry, biochemistry and the public health from all of her post doc training,” says Dr. Diane Stearns, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern Arizona University. “To me, that speaks to her ability to impact in her research because she understands not just the details of the science but understands how it can be applied.”
Along with her new teaching role, Lee is still involved within the national guard.
“The universities I’ve been at have been very supportive to my commitment to the military,” says Lee. “Right now, it’s juggling my new commitments, now as a faculty member and how I can use my skills as a faculty member and military career and vice versa.”
Throughout her career, Lee has found her favorite part to be working with students.
“I really enjoy working with high school students and undergrads, mentoring them, getting them on a career path that they didn’t even know might exist,” says Lee. “Seeing them succeed wherever they go and helping them understand what success is and not just that Western definition.”
In the future, Lee says she hopes to increase diversity across the biomedical and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“We need to start getting our native students through these pathways to academia and research,” she says. “That’s one of my goals. If we increase the pool at a younger age, you’re more likely to get more students through this academic path.”
Dr. Naomi Lee
Title: Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, at Northern Arizona University
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Rochester Institute of Technology; Master’s degree, University of Rochester; Ph.D, University of Rochester
Career mentors: Dr. Jason Younker, Rochester Institute of Technology, now at University of Oregon; Dr. Clif Poodry; National Institute of Health; Dr. Rita Devine, National Institutes of Health; Dr. Bryce Chackerian, University of New Mexico; Dr. Tamara James, Indian Health Service; and Dr. Joslynn Lee, Fort-Lewis College
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Remember who you are and remember where you came from. You don’t have to separate your different identities. And I think that their adversity and making sure that we’re not sidelining our different parts of our lives is very important to us and our own success as well.”
This article appeared in the January 23, 2020 edition of Diverse.
This is one in a series of profiles about this year’s 2020 Emerging Scholars. Read about all of them here.