July 2022

Leah Nez graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver with degrees in philosophy and biology. As an undergraduate student and post baccalaureate fellow, she conducted research with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Leah shares her background and experiences, path to studying bioethics, and advice for other students interested in science, research, and health.

Meet Leah

In Diné Bizaad (Navajo)
Ya’at’eeh! Shí éí Leah Nez yinishyé! Ashiihi nishli, tabaaha basheshchii, bitaani dashicheii, doo tachii'nii dashinali. Ákót’éego diné asdzáán nishłį́. Denver kééhasht’į́ ndi Tsé Bii' Ndzisgaii naashá Ahéhee’!

Hello, my name is Leah Nez! I was born of the Salt Clan and born for the Water Edge People. My maternal grandfather is of the Under His Cover Clan and my paternal grandfather is of the Red Running into the Water People. In this way, I am a Navajo woman. I am currently living in Denver, but I’m from Monument Valley. Thank you!

Leah Nez
Photo credit: Bryan Leavelle

Q: How did you learn about opportunities for students at NIH?

Leah: So, I was fortunate enough to have done other NIH internships (2009, 2010, 2011) earlier in my college career that inspired me to apply for the 2021 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Summer Internship Program (SIP). I did not know about the Health Disparities in Tribal Communities Program until I was accepted, but I’m so happy that there is this awareness and link for Native students to have a pathway into research that affects their communities. This was the perfect program for me last summer. My project was a literature review on existing guidelines and policies for the ethical conduct of Urban Indian research and contributed to other projects that were underway. I’m so lucky to have had a front seat to see how these projects are woven together with collaboration and I stayed to continue helping where I could a year later.

Q: How did you become interested in science?

Leah: Going into the Summer Internship Program, I knew that bioethics was the area I wanted to do research in. My B.S. is in biology and B.A. in philosophy, and I needed some experience in the field because I had only recently decided to pursue bioethics. It was not something I always wanted to do. Growing up, I have always been a strong biology student and was naturally pushed down the doctor route. It was not the path for me, and it took a lot of self-reflection and confidence to pursue something different. When I had to think about graduation, I started talking to my professors about how to incorporate philosophy in science and one of them told me about the field of bioethics. This field was how I found the connection of these two areas that I love so much, and am able to contribute in my own way.

Q: What did you study in school?

Leah: I have dabbled in many areas of study. I started my college career with music, but soon found it was a beloved hobby – one that I still participate in. There was a moment that I decided to do biology with a minor in philosophy. Philosophy has always been a passion of mine. Most students start reading with Plato or Descartes, but the teacher I came across in high school gave me Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. I read this overnight and, even though I didn’t understand it, there was something there. That was enough to hook me for life. I had to know more.

I had taken college science classes through my high school program, but philosophy held something for me. My first class on a college campus was Introduction to Ethics, and that professor encouraged me to keep going. She told me that I’m the only one who would stop myself, so I took a philosophy course or two every semester. By the 2nd year of my bachelor’s, they told me that I had blown past my minor in philosophy and to just double major. So, I graduated with both.

My next steps are to continue onto graduate school, but I need some more experience. I was accepted into the PIKE-PREP program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. I will be researching bioethics in genomic research with Dr. Katrina Claw. This post-baccalaureate fellowship will be a perfect way for me to continue down the bioethics path while finding a good program that will let me continue professionally.

Q: Were there any challenges you overcame during school that would be helpful to share with others?

Leah: My biggest advice to an aspiring college student is to take time for yourself and figure out what you want. I learned this when I took time to travel and explore the world, but everyone has their own way to find themselves. After taking that time, I was more confident in what I wanted and patient with pursuing those goals. Perseverance goes a long way in academia because you will fail. There is no way around it, but it doesn’t have to be the end. If you keep striving and accept these failures as lessons, you will see that you can continue with your goals. The challenges you overcome will build you into the person you need to forward your career. So, don’t shy away from hardship, but instead run towards it. Be patient and gentle with yourself.

Q: How would you describe your current work and projects?

Leah: The work I have been doing – with Dr. Sara Chandros Hull in the NIH Tribal Health Resource Office (THRO) – is focused on the ethical commitments to Urban Indian populations. This has been the bulk of what I have been doing over the last year. Of course, this came with learning about the intricacies of Tribal relations with NIH. Reading several papers and attending meetings have given me such an appreciation of the work that THRO is doing and I’m so thankful to have contributed a little bit to that. Being part of the team has helped mold my perspective and it will help me throughout my career.

Q: What NIH programs would you like to make sure other students know about?

Leah: NIH has so many resources for students of all levels. Students are the future of research and NIH. The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education is a great place to find opportunities for students.

Q: What else would you like to share with other Native students interested in science and health?

Leah: Native students are needed in every aspect of any field. Everyone has what they enjoy and find exciting. My best advice would be to pursue something that you are proud to be a part of. There’s so much the world holds that you will find what you like if you keep looking. Also, things are not as separate as they seem. I found a path for the two things I love: science and ethics. Research and healthcare both offer opportunities in bioethics for someone like me. But there is so much more, so keep exploring. Don’t underestimate the value of knowing people. Some people are shy but putting yourself out there is an important part of your journey. If I didn’t have this network of people, I wouldn’t have made it as far as I have in my career. This includes your friends and family, and those professional contacts in college or at your job. There’s so much to be gained when we work together.

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