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Expanding Her Horizons
by Nancy Volkers
Soon after starting her freshman year at Dartmouth College, in September 2005, Cinnamon Spear received a care package with the usual fare: chocolate-covered coffee beans, a teddy bear, a postcard from her home state of Montana—and PCR tubes.
The slightly quirky gift, an essential tool for molecular biologists, came from Spear's labmates at the Center for Biofilm Engineering (CBE) at Montana State University (MSU), where she had spent the two previous summers doing research through the HHMI-supported Montana Apprenticeship Program. Not only did Spear enjoy the research—which led to her first published paper, in the May 2006 issue of Microbial Ecology—she also left a lasting impression.
“It's like we've adopted her, and she's adopted us,” says research scientist Mark Burr, Spear's CBE lab mentor.
Spear, age 19, returned to Burr's MSU lab this past summer through a separate HHMI-supported program, the Undergraduate Science Education Program, spending 10 weeks studying water-quality issues in the campus wetlands.
Despite strong ties to her MSU colleagues and to Montana—Spear is Northern Cheyenne and grew up on the reservation in Lame Deer—when it came time for college she chose a school 2,000 miles and two time zones away.
“It was a hard decision,” she allows. With plans to become a pediatrician, Spear was attracted to MSU's participation in the WWAMI program, which aims to provide high-quality medical education for the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho. By attending Montana State, she would virtually have been guaranteed admission to the University of Washington School of Medicine. But in the end, she couldn't pass up the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school.
Prestige was not the only factor. “I want to come back to the reservation for my career,” she says. “But I wouldn't want to spend my whole life in Montana when there's so much more out there.” Also, Dartmouth has a strong Native American Studies program, and Spear is considering a major in that field.
Distance can have its advantages, as well. “I've taken care of my brothers and sisters a lot, so I know if I were close to home I'd be leaving school to go home,” says Spear, who looks out for a cousin and three siblings, ages 18, 16, 14, and 11. “As it is, I still worry about them because I feel like they're my kids. I'm always calling and checking up on them.”
Photo: Jason Grow