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From Walking in Space to Walking at Graduation: Astronaut Gets His PhD

Chickasaw astronaut John B. Herrington earned his doctorate from the University of Idaho in December. He encourages students to "reach for the stars."

Commander John B. Herrington, the world’s first indigenous astronaut, has added a new title to his name—Doctor of Philosophy. He graduated in December from the University of Idaho with a doctorate in Education. “I wanted to spend some time in a formal environment studying the factors that influenced Native students to study math and science.”

Dr. Herrington achieved his dream of walking in space in 2002 on mission STS-113. After retiring from the Navy and leaving NASA in 2005, he wondered what else could inspire him to pursue a passion back on earth. “Space is an extreme environment and it appealed to me in so many ways.” So Herrington talked to the governor of his tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, and an idea was formed. “I would ride a bicycle from Cape Flattery, Washington, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and speak to Native communities about the benefits of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.” Native Americans are the least represented minority in math and science.

One of the thousands of people who greeted Herrington along his journey across the country was Dr. Ed Galindo (Yaqui), Director of the Natural Resources Tribal Cooperative, Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Idaho. Dr. Galindo encouraged the former astronaut to consider a PhD. “I realized it was time for me to pick a topic I was passionate about and research it. That topic was motivation in Native students, specifically regarding STEM.”

Herrington spent three years developing, researching, and writing his dissertation which became “Investigating the Factors that Motivate and Engage Native American Students in Math and Science on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation Following Participation in the NASA Summer of Innovation Program.”

“While I miss the rigor and excitement of a space mission, I’ve found an opportunity to visit with students who are unsure about their opportunities. Challenge is something we must all embrace and I pass along my academic and professional experience in the hope that a student will become motivated to fulfill his or her own dreams.”

Indeed, the topic of challenge is never far from Herrington’s mind. “I’ve met and spoken to a number of administrators, professors, and business owners who are actively hoping to recruit Native students into their programs and professions; however, many Native students are anxious about the changes these opportunities may mean for themselves and their families.” Herrington’s approach is to encourage them to “reach for the stars.”

RELATED: Reach for the Stars: 5 nuggets of Inspiration from Chickasaw Astronaut John Herrington