From Navajo Reservation to NASA

Aaron Yazzie takes love of science into a career in NASA robotics lab

Aaron Yazzie stands in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Anaheim, California. Submitted photo

Aaron Yazzie stands in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Anaheim, California. Submitted photo

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - How does a reservation kid from the Navajo Nation grow up to work at NASA at a lab that sends robots to Mars? For Aaron Yazzie it started in Tuba City, where he was born.

His mother's family lives in Shadow Mountain in Cameron, Arizona and many of Yazzie's relatives attended Tuba City High School, including his mother. Yazzie was raised and went to school in Holbrook, Arizona. His parents Kee and Shirley Yazzie still live in Holbrook. He is Salt clan, born for the Bitter Water clan. His maternal grandfather's clan is Towering House and his paternal grandfather's clan is Near Water.

Yazzie's parents were typical of their generation - they were born and grew up in hogans, Navajo was their first language. While his parents went to school, education was not at the forefront of their lives, until something changed.

"Somewhere along the way, my parents were inspired to do better in school and to go to college," Yazzie said. "There weren't very many people from that family who went on to college but my parents did. That's where they met."

For Yazzie and his two brothers, his parents emphasized education. Yazzie was a good student who wanted to excel. By working hard he did become one of the top students at the school and took advantage of all Holbrook had to offer, even though Holbrook was a small town and had a small school like other reservation towns and schools.

"For being a small town I thought I got a pretty solid education from Holbrook," Yazzie said. "I had some really good teachers for math and science and even though our school didn't offer the AP classes or exams... the classes we took gave me a really solid foundation."

He also encountered programs in high school that Northern Arizona University (NAU) offered specifically geared toward students like Yazzie. He took advantage of the TRIO program at NAU, which are a set of federally funded college opportunity programs that motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their quest for a college degree.

Eugene Begay, a representative of Educational Talent Search at NAU, (a program aimed at providing support and assistance to middle and high school students), visited all the border town and reservation schools and talked to students about programs, scholarships and college applications. Begay introduce Yazzie to a program called College Horizons, a summer program for high school Native students where they are taught how to apply to college.

"But not just any college... they want to push you to go for top schools," Yazzie said. "That was the first time it opened my eyes to the possibility that I might be able to get in to one of those types of schools."

Yazzie also took advantage of the Upward Bound program at NAU, a six-week residential program where students take classes and complete projects with other students.

It was during his time at College Horizons that Yazzie encountered a recruiter for Stanford University. Yazzie wanted to go there because it was in California, close to Arizona and had a good engineering program.

"I knew I was interested in engineering at the time," Yazzie said. "I remember getting home and writing him a letter, because I didn't have email. I attached my school picture to it and asked him, 'how do I apply to Stanford?'"

The process of applying to Stanford and his eventual acceptance there was a life changing experience for Yazzie. The students who were there were the top students at their schools who had been able to take AP classes and test out of subjects while he needed to start at the beginning of every sequence to take the classes required.

"It was a huge culture shock," he said. "At the time I was ready to go explore the world. I was excited about being able to live away from home for a little bit. The homesickness didn't hit me too much at the beginning, mostly it was just trying to play catch up with academics. It is just another level of learning, it's a little bit more accelerated it seems, a little bit faster, all the students just understand it a little bit quicker. You just have to be on your game the whole time."

In 2008, Yazzie graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's of science in mechanical engineering, an interest that he had as a kid growing up. His father was a highway engineer and his mom is a math teacher - both probably influenced his interest, Yazzie thinks.

"I really liked to build things...make things with my hands, especially as a kid, making projects at home by myself or at school," he said. "I would really get into projects where you had to build a bridge out of spaghetti or something. I love that type of stuff. "

Yazzie also thinks growing up Navajo has something to do with his love of engineering too.

"You do a lot of work with your hands, it's a lot of practical thinking being creative and coming up with solutions for certain problems that come up," he said. "All of that type of stuff has really helped me to just practically think about a problem and find solutions."

Now, he is a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) for NASA in Pasadena, California. The lab focuses primarily on robotic exploration. His lab was responsible for the Mars Rover and a lot of the Martian missions.

"I get to design mechanisms, assemblies, parts, robots and I get to build them, test them and get them ready to fly to space," Yazzie said. "It's a really cool job."

In fact, for Yazzie it is a dream job that has not ceased to amaze him. He did not realize until he got to JPL how big a deal the jet propulsion lab is - the engineers and scientists and people he works with have dreamed of working there all of their lives.

"I've come to realize it is a very highly coveted job," he said. "I knew that NASA existed but I didn't know that all the stuff I love about NASA was made here at JPL."

Yazzie works with people who have built test missions that are historical now. When he first started working at the lab, the Curiosity Rover was under construction.

"I could go down to the lab where they were building parts for it," Yazzie said. "Now the people who came up with all the ideas and concepts for that are on teams with me and I get to learn from them and work with them on new projects."

While his career and his culture seem worlds apart, Yazzie said that there are more similarities than can been seen on the surface. In addition to the practical thinking and the ability to assess problems and come up with creative solutions is also the respect and obedience to elders and parents that has taught him important lessons that carry over into his job now.

"You are always willing to listen and willing to learn and to not be lazy. I think that's a big thing Navajos learn, to not be lazy, to always be doing something and to always be useful," Yazzie said. "That is something that has really helped me to just always try to make myself useful and I think people are impressed by that type of work ethic."

Yazzie wants kids on the reservation to realize that the type of career he has, his job and his life path are just as available to them as they are to anyone else. He had a lot of fear and doubt growing up that he belonged in the world he is in now and it was only by taking advantage and jumping from one opportunity to the next that his dream became more convincing and within his reach.

"When you don't think it is possible it is hard to reach up and do that," Yazzie said. "I hope that they believe these big dreams are also theirs as they are anybody else's."

There are tons of programs and organizations that are geared toward getting Native Americans into college or into the science and technology field, Yazzie said.

"They love nothing more than to just see one of them succeed, to make it all the way through," he said. "That is what they want. You should take advantage of all the opportunities and once you get there, you get to be the one to reach back and help those behind you."

The hardest thing for Yazzie in bridging his culture with his job is the distance from his family and his home in Arizona. He is one of the lucky ones, he said, because he is only one state away and he goes home as much as he can, for holidays, for family reunions and even for the Tuba City Fair.

"There's always a big push for Native students to go out and get their education and come back to help the people, to help Navajo, or Hopi," Yazzie said. "And I believe that too. I still want that for myself. But I see this career that I have now as my training ground. I am still training to be a good engineer and be a good leader. I'm learning from really smart people. And hopefully in the future I will get to a point where I feel really confident and I can bring all that experience home and make a bigger impact."

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