Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Arielle Platero was born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation and grew up in Farmington in a single-parent household.
Now 33 and a senior majoring in engineering and math, with an emphasis on physics at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, Platero has been chosen to participate in a paid mentoring program with physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in a joint LANL-Fort Lewis effort supporting Indigenous female undergraduate students pursuing a career in physics.
“My mom raised me and my little sister, and we lived on the outskirts of town,” said Platero in a recent phone interview. “It was difficult, I know my mother struggled, and we got through it. She was always very encouraging of my sister and I going to school and finishing our educations.”
Platero is the mother of two daughters: Claire, 10, and Natalie, 8.
Now, with the mentorship and the prospect of graduate school in the future, she realizes this is one more step in the path. “It’s been a long journey, for sure, to get here,” Platero said.
“I have always had an interest in math just growing up – math and science – and it wasn’t until I worked at Raytheon (Technologies) on the reservation … I was able to view the engineers doing their work and it seemed very interesting, so that’s where my interest in engineering started.”
She never really thought about physics until she started attending San Juan College. “Engineering and physics kind of went hand in hand …,” she said.
The two-year $195,000 LANL program, launched in mid-November, consists of 10 weeks at the lab and year-round mentoring. It is funded by the Department of Energy. Officials are seeking “to make it a more permanent program,” said Astrid Morreale, a researcher in the Particle Physics and Applications group at LANL and a co-leader of the program.
“In my field of physics, which is high-energy nuclear physics … typically, the presence of people of Native American heritage … is actually very low, meaning low to zero,” Morreale said.
When Laurie Williams, dean of the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College, learned of the mentorship grant, she sent out a flyer and emails asking interested Indigenous women to submit a letter of interest.
The other successful applicant is Fort Lewis senior Julie Nelson of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“Both Arielle and Julie are strong students,” said Williams, adding that both are mothers, and both are interested in attending graduate school.
The mentorships are “offered to two women per year majoring in physics at Fort Lewis College,” with the goal to “build a pipeline of talent from the undergraduate level in the Four Corners region to graduate programs and eventual careers in physics, including at national laboratories such as Los Alamos,” LANL said in a news release.
Platero found out in October that she had been awarded the mentorship.
“Once I got it, I was very excited,” she said. “I’m encouraged to go after my doctorate, I am really excited about the prospect, I think this internship will really pave the path towards that goal.”
Careers at LANL are “absolutely” a possibility for the students, said Morreale. “My hope is that, thanks to the coverage they are getting now … there will be universities offering them really good deals for graduate work…”
Although the laws of physics may be taken for granted by many in everyday life, for students such as Platero, the laws are liberating.
“So much of the world is governed by physics, forces and how matter interacts, and it’s such an interesting topic that helps to explain the natural phenomenon in the world,” she said.
Platero has never been out of the country, but an upcoming two-week trip to CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, on the French-Swiss border is a program highlight.
“Students will descend more than 300 feet below the French countryside to tour one of the detector experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, which investigates the properties of subatomic particles, and spend time reviewing data collected, and interacting with the global cohort of students and researchers who come to work at CERN,” LANL said in its release.
Platero also believes it’s important to pass on the mantle of her good fortune.
“I would like to encourage the younger generation of Diné or Navajos, even if they are … afraid of chasing their dreams, it’s not impossible to go out there … and hope for the best,” she said. “Don’t stop trying to reach your goals.”