UAF student wins scholarship to attend national conference

 A line of college students on a stage
Photo courtesy Karsten Sierra
All the sponsored students from Sealaska lined up on the main stage at the conference after the Student Awards Luncheon. L to R, Karsten Sierra, Nina Edwards, Malika, Taylor Heaton, Maddie Henson and Brandon Gomez.

LJ Evans

Karsten Sierra wanted to go to the national conference of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society this year, but finding the money to cover registration, travel and lodging presented a challenge.

After encouragement from a couple of sources, the sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering and a student employee in UAF’s Geophysical Institute Communications unit decided to apply for travel scholarships.

“If I got accepted, I would go, and If I didn’t, I would apply to other travel scholarships. Either way, I was going to go,” Sierra said. He applied to Alaska Native regional corporation Sealaska, where he is a shareholder, to help with the expenses to go to the AISES annual conference Oct. 6-8 in Palm Springs, Calif.

“I wrangled together my old resume, unofficial transcript, a letter of recommendation, an application essay and submitted the application.”

A week later he received a congratulatory email from Sealaska telling him the corporation would cover his costs for the entire conference. All he had to do in return was send the Sealaska office a group photo of all the scholarship recipients. The program included two virtual meetings prior to his departure to provide information about the logistics of attending a national science conference and advice on how to get the most out of the experience.

Sierra received encouragement on attending the AISES conference from participants in the UAF Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, or ANSEP, whose monthly meetings he had been attending on campus since 2021, and from his mother, who recommended he apply to Sealaska.

A few weeks later Sierra received a text from his mother that they would meet up in Palm Springs.

“I hadn’t seen my mom since May and found it amusing that we would reconvene in California,” Sierra said.

Karsten Sierra and his mother Eldri Westmoreland in Palm Springs, Calif.
Photo courtesy Karsten Sierra
Karsten Sierra and his mother Eldri Westmoreland in Palm Springs, Calif., during the AISES conference in October.

“She is a teacher in Juneau and has been working on a project with Sealaska Heritage making a new culturally responsive STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) curriculum for teachers. So she convinced her group leader that they should all go to AISES.”

Sierra said the conference helped him see new ways to embrace his heritage while he follows his curiosity into science and engineering.

Advertised as the largest college and career fair in the U.S. for Indigenous students and professionals, AISES is also a great place to make connections. Boeing alone had around 30 people there conducting job interviews, Sierra said. He attended a resume workshop and sessions about what it’s like to work for organizations like the CIA or NASA. Poster sessions allowed students and professionals to present information about their research. One of the major sponsors of the conference was Apple, and he spent some time mingling with people employed there.

“There were little tables and areas everywhere that encouraged people to just talk,” he said. “There was a lot going on; it was hard to decide what to attend.”

A big powwow with drumming and dancing closed the conference.

There was tremendous variety in the dancing by people from different tribes across the nation, Sierra said. Once on the dance floor he zeroed in on the people who were dancing in Tlingit style and joined them.

“I made some fantastic connections at the conference, both professional and personal. New friends and new potential employers. I felt like a kid again, talking to people who work at JPL, SpaceX, imagining building something that is used on a mission to explore outer space.

“Seeing these professionals who are Indigenous and super jazzed about STEM made me really excited to be where they are one day.”