An Environmental Scientist and an Educator Highlight Navajo Efforts to Balance Tradition with Scientific Priorities

An Environmental Scientist and an Educator Highlight Navajo Efforts to Balance Tradition with Scientific Priorities

Navajo Nation's Monument Valley Park, Arizona.

Gabriel Reilich

This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

The global pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the stark disparities that exist within American communities. In the past months, journalists and public health experts have reminded us how longstanding systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Still, the national dialogue noticeably lacks a general awareness of Indigenous people's needs and priorities, especially in the scientific realm.

To learn more about some of the issues facing often-overlooked Indigenous tribal communities, we sought the perspectives of two members of the Navajo Nation: Nonabah Lane, Director of Development of New Mexico Projects at Navajo Power and the founder of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education; and Elmer Guy, Ph.D., president of Navajo Technical University, the first university to be established forty years ago on the Navajo Nation that today stands as a premier institution of higher education focusing on a balance between science and technology and traditional culture.

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Daniel Cappello
Daniel Cappello is a writer based in New York City. He has worked as an editor for The New Yorker, Quest, George, and Harvard Current magazines, and his writing, on subjects from health and science to politics, culture, travel, and the arts, has appeared in The New York Times and Architectural Digest. Daniel supports cancer fundraising, research, and education, with a focus on rare cancers and sarcomas. At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, he serves as a mentor for Visible Ink, a program in which cancer patients are able to express their experiences through writing.
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Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash

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They received retinal implants to restore their vision. Then the company turned its back on them.

A company called Second Sight made an implant that partially restored vision to people who'd been blind for decades. But when Second Sight pivoted, it stopped servicing its product, leaving many in the dark.

The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.

“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”

Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.

Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.

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Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.