“Community” is the word graduating senior Alanna Pyke utters most often when reflecting on her time at Yale.
“What I really came to value here is a sense of community and being a part of something that is bigger than myself,” says Pyke of her Yale College experience.
For Pyke, one of the most valuable communities was the one she found at the Native American Cultural Center (NACC), the place that inspired her to choose Yale out of the more than 15 colleges that accepted her, and where she experienced a deep sense of belonging. She was impressed by the fact that an entire building was dedicated space for the NACC.
“The Native community and also Dean [Kelly] Fayard [assistant dean of Yale College and director of the NACC] were such a huge part of my Yale experience,” says Pyke. “The NACC at 26 High St. is a welcoming place, where you can go to relax or study or see friends. I spent a lot of time there.”
Pyke — the first Native student to be valedictorian of Massena Central High School in New York — says that no one in recent memory from her high school or her reservation had gone to Yale. Feeling supported on campus, while maintaining a connection to her indigenous roots, was important to her.
A member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, Pyke grew up in upstate New York on the Akwesasne Reservation, which straddles the New York and Canadian border along the St. Lawrence River. Prior to seventh grade, she went to an elementary school on the reservation where she was taught the Mohawk language. At her next school, which was predominantly white, Mohawk was not taught; Pyke was told that she could study French or Spanish instead.
“I remember crying when I found that out,” the Yale senior recalls. “I didn’t know why I was crying at the time but I know I thought it was a big deal that I couldn’t continue learning Mohawk. I eventually realized why it was a big deal: At school, I was no longer connected to my culture.”
As a first-year student at Yale, Pyke had a job as a first-year liaison at the NACC, helping new students feel welcome at the center. She soon found herself spending time there after her shift, and was encouraged by other Native students to attend special events or meetings or to take on leadership roles. While she says she was initially “a little too shy” to hold an official post, she quickly found herself a member of the NACC-affiliated Association for Native American Students at Yale (ANAAY), the American Indian Science & Engineering Society, Yale Sisters of All Nations, and the Yale Native American Arts Council.
During the second semester of her first year, she became a coordinator of periodic ANAAY brunches, and in her sophomore year she become ANAAY’s vice president, serving through the fall of her junior year.
“That year, we were hosting the Henry Roe Cloud Conference and our first campus powwow in a decade, and we weren’t sure if we could pull it off,” Pyke recalls. The event was a success, and Pyke didn’t hesitate to take on the role of ANAAY president in her final year.
Pyke, who is majoring in molecular, cellular, and development biology (MCDB), acknowledges that it was sometimes challenging to balance her studies, research commitments, and leadership duties in the Native community. This year, she led the planning for the 2018 campus powwow, held during the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration.
“A lot of the time I put doing work for the Native community above some of my other commitments, such as academics,” Pyke says. “But I’m still graduating, so not that much!”
She says she is grateful for having the opportunity to study Mohawk at Yale (via the Native American Language Program) and was active in a student campaign to lobby the Yale administration to offer for-credit courses in indigenous languages. Pyke notes that future generations of Yalies will have that opportunity; to build on the university’s already extensive language offerings and prepare students to participate in the global economy, less commonly taught languages, including indigenous languages of the United States, will now be offered for credit.
As a woman of color in STEM, the Yale senior says that the mentors she had in the sciences were vital to her success, and she is particularly thankful for the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) Program, which supports women, minority, economically underprivileged, and other historically underrepresented students in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. In addition to mentoring, the program provides research opportunities, networking, courses and workshops, and career planning to undergraduates in STEM disciplines.
Through STARS, Pyke undertook a variety of research projects on campus, including studying DNA samples to determine the migration patterns of rats in Brazil in order to administer vector control and investigating the Alaska gyrfalcon predation on ptarmigan birds. Both of these projects, along with many others, were completed in the lab of Dr. Adalgisa Caccone. While participating in a STARS Summer Research Program, she took a science course co-taught by a group of faculty members including Marina Moreno, associate research scientist and instructor in MCDB, who became Pyke’s faculty adviser. Moreno is also one of the STARS coordinators.
“She helped me through this entire endeavor of getting an education,” says Pyke. “Without the STARS program, there’s a big chance I wouldn’t have stayed in STEM. I don’t think I would have made it without Dr. Moreno and STARS mentor Rob Fernandez [a Ph.D. student in MCDB].”
Pyke, who also had a paid position in the DNA Analysis Facility, is interested in evolution and genetics and “how evolutionary genetics happens,” she says. Through a study abroad program in the School for Field Studies, she spent part of one summer learning how to conduct research while living for a month in an Australian rainforest. Before her senior year, she had a Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics Canada (SING Canada), a one-week program that exposes participants to genomic methodologies and techniques, and introduces them to health and environmental policy issues for indigenous peoples. In this program, Pyke investigated clam DNA in order to study the animals’ migration and lineage.
“These kinds of experiences encouraged me by introducing me to people like me who have the same interests I do,” she says.
Finally, the Timothy Dwight College community, led by Head of College Mary Lui and Dean Sarah Mahurin, was “a huge source” of support, Pyke says.
“I don’t think I actively reflected on this during my time here, but a lot of the campus institutions that have been such supportive communities for me have been led by women,” says the soon-to-be graduate.
This summer, Pyke will begin Harvard University’s Research Scholar Initiative, a post-baccalaureate program to enhance scholars’ competitiveness for Ph.D. programs. She is interested in continuing genetics or genomics research in the future.
“Many Native communities have a distrust of science generally and of genetic science in particular,” says Pyke. “It’s been used wrongly in the past, or used without consent. Certain types of commercial DNA tests to prove heritage, for example, may connect a person vaguely to a tribe, but it doesn’t really prove anything tangible, which is one reason why tribes don’t really trust geneticists.”
Pyke hopes to give back to her own community through scholarship. “Representation is important because it will inspire future generations of Native scholarship and scientists, and add diverse perspectives to different fields,” she says.