When Andrea Gomez was 8 years old, she told anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a microbiologist. “I knew I would be studying small things, and I was interested in the concept of observing things beyond the eye.”
Nearly 25 years later, the Laguna Pueblo Native finds herself in a small population of Indian country that has earned a doctorate degree, let alone one in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields—where only 0.3 percent of degrees are awarded to American Indian/Alaska Native students, according to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.
In 2013, Gomez earned a Ph.D. in Developmental Genetics from The Sackler Institute at New York University’s School of Medicine. “I became fascinated with brain development; how such a complex structure starts from a single cell that multiplies and specializes into neurons that self-organize,” she then launched into a detailed and scientific explanation of her work. “So, how can we decode the genome for patterns that organize the brain? Finding that answer is my life project.”
For the last two years, Gomez has been working as a post-doctoral fellow assistant in Switzerland in a competitive program at a world-renowned laboratory at the Biozentrum Research Institute at the University of Basel. It is the final step in her journey to become a professor. “Once my fellowship ends, my goal is to earn a faculty position in Developmental Genetics at a university in New York, California or Colorado,” places where she and her wife have determined would be more accepting of their liberal values. “It has to be the right place to balance both my career and personal life,” she said.
Gomez believes her work in studying neural connections in the brain could help lead to a better understanding of autism and mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia. “We really have very little knowledge of what is going on in the brain,” she said. But she is hopeful that continued research into how the brain is organized will one day improve the lives of people afflicted with these disorders. Her work could be of great value to Indian country, as well, since more than 21 percent of the entire Native population in the U.S. had a diagnosable mental illness in 2014, based on research from Mental Health America.
Over the years, the 32-year-old neuroscientist has grown to appreciate her birth home in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “When I was living there, I couldn’t wait to get out. But after spending some time in Colorado, New York and Switzerland, I realize what a beautiful and unique place New Mexico really is.”
No matter where she is, home is never too far from her thoughts, as Gomez has plans to give back to Native people someday—a value that was instilled in her by her parents. “I have always envisioned creating a Native American scholarship program to inspire Native people to pursue careers in science,” she said. “But in order to have that clout or influence, I need to reach my goals first. I want to be a role model for young people so they know they can achieve what I have achieved.”
Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.