Green lit dark auditorium with students on the left, and a chemistry on the right.

Be the light in your community

On July 14-16, 2021, students of the American Indian Services (AIS) Pre-Freshman Engineering Program (AIS PREP) came to the University of Utah to celebrate the completion of their 2021 AIS PREP, co-hosted by the College of Science. AIS PREP is a free program for Native American students to take advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses for six weeks for three consecutive summers. At the end of the program, the students earn scholarships to any higher education institution that they choose and continue to receive financial assistance. The 2021 AIS PREP group included 113 students from different Native American tribes: Navajo (Diné), Hopi, Oglala Sioux (Lakota), Shoshone/Bannock, Zuni, Crow, Paiute, and Cheyenne. AIS PREP is focused on making the curriculum culturally sensitive to the Native American students they serve. They bring a unique opportunity to keep the students close to their homes.

“We’re the only non-profit that has taken on such a big program like this. Some of these tribal communities are in rural areas—resources are scarce,” said Meredith Little Lam, project and program manager at AIS and AIS scholarship alumnus. “The whole point of AIS PREP is that we want to make sure we give our Native American students STEM resources that will allow them to succeed in high school.”

Three women stand in front of dozens of students who hold up illuminated cube lights in the background.

PHOTO CREDIT: AIS PREP

From left to right: Meredith Little Lam, project and program manager at AIS, Sylvia McMillan, AIS executive director, and Shelby Chapoose, AIS Tribal liaison and executive assistant. The graduates hold up the Solar Puff light.

The students traveled to the U on July 14 to stay in campus dorms, meet PREP students from other AIS PREP sites, and hear presentations from U staff and College of Science faculty to celebrate the completion of the program. The week ended with a keynote address from the architect, inventor and entrepreneur Alice Min Soo Chun, during which she shared her inspiring story of changing the world by inventing a durable, portable, collapsible solar light.

“These students come from some of the poorest reservations in the United States. This really is a trip of a lifetime for them,” said Little Lam, “Some come from areas where there’s no running water, no electricity. We live in the United States and it’s just appalling that we can’t figure out ways to help these communities. And so, I think that this is a proactive way of getting these students involved in STEM to let them know, ‘You can change your tribal communities. You have it within yourself to be that leader.’”

“The College of Science is honored to have taken part in celebrating this incredible accomplishment of completing AIS PREP,” said Cassie Slattery, director of special projects of the college. “We would be lucky to have any one of these exceptional students pursue science here at the U.”

Anyone can be a scientist

Ryan Stolley in a blue lab coat, wearing safety goggles. He is popping a red balloon that says "I love you," and it bursts into flames. He's in a classroom with a periodic table in the background.

PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Crawley/College of Science

Ryan Stolley got fired up while presenting to the graduates of AIS PREP.

On Thursday, the students learned about a diverse array of topics from speakers, including Donna Eldridge (Navajo/Diné), program manager of Tribal outreach for Health Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion, Amy Sibul of the School of Biological Sciences, Paul Ricketts of the South Physics Observatory, Julie Callahan (Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa) of ASPIRE, and Kyle Ethelbah (Western Apache), director of the U’s TRIO programs. One of the day’s highlights was an explosive presentation from chemist Ryan Stolley. He threw balls of fire, inhaled sulfur hexafluoride to give himself a funny low voice, and had the students freeze flowers with liquid nitrogen and smash them to bits. In between the chemistry magic, Stolley shared his personal story.

“I was a Native American student, of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. When I was young, school was not my focus—I was just getting into trouble. But I got a lucky break and met some chemists who really changed my life,” said Stolley. “Native students are severely underrepresented in STEM disciplines. I love any opportunity to show them that it’s possible to pursue science. I mean, I’m covered in tattoos. Anybody can be a scientist. You just have to be curious.”

Stolley spoke to the students about attending Fort Lewis College, a university in Colorado that offers free tuition to Native American students. He received a doctoral degree in organic chemistry from the U and was a postdoctoral research assistant at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He returned to Salt Lake City as a research assistant professor first in the Department of Chemistry and now in the College of Science, as well as part owner of a local chemical company.

“Part of what my company does is to make products that help clean contaminants out of water across the Colorado Plateau, especially on Tribal lands,” Stolley said, “I want to get these students thinking about how we can take our science and turn it around to help our Native communities.”

Creating positive memories on campus is part of how AIS PREP helps plant the seed to pursue higher education.

“We’re excited to be partnering with the U and having the ability to connect these students with faculty and current student volunteers who are Native American so that they can instill in their minds that it’s not an impossible dream,” said Little Lam. “Maybe they’ll be teachers and maybe they’ll be researchers, but wherever they may be, they can contribute to their Tribal communities. AIS doesn’t just stop with them after they graduate. We give them financial resources, but also say, ‘Hey, we’re here for you. Even after you finish this program.’”

A problem is an opportunity in disguise

Alice Min Soo Chun in front of a red block U dressed in a Pendleton blanket.

PHOTO CREDIT: AIS PREP

Alice Min Soo Chun in front of the block U on the University of Utah campus, draped in a Pendleton blanket gifted to her by AIS PREP.

This is the first year that AIS invited a keynote speaker to address the students during their program completion celebration. For Little Lam, Alice Min Soo Chun was the perfect choice. Chun, founder and CEO of Solight Designs, Inc. invented the Solar Puff, a portable, collapsible, self-inflating light powered by the sun. Little Lam met Chun while at Navajo Strong, through which Chun donated Solar Puff lights to families on the Navajo Nation without access to electricity.

“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise,” Chun, who is also a professor at Columbia University, told the AIS PREP graduates. “By doing research and observing, anybody can do this.”

Chun’s passion for solar energy began when her son was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that was aggravated by New York City’s poor air quality. Chun was inspired to find energy solutions that would reduce air pollution and its impacts on respiratory health. She realized that her son’s respiratory issues were global; without access to electricity, millions of people are forced to burn kerosene lanterns for lighting that produce noxious fumes. She saw a need for solar lights that were durable and collapsible, but the only ones available had to be inflated, leaving users vulnerable to bacterial infections. So, she invented a foldable design that drew from her childhood.

“I’m Korean. When I was a little girl, my mother taught me origami when I was young. Origami is an incredibly powerful tool,” she said. “Paper on its own can’t stand up. Fold it once, you have a corner, you have structure.”

Through the “Give a Light” program, Solight Designs has supplied Solar Puffs to Haiti, Puerto Rico, The Florida Keys, Ghana, Ecuador, Miami and more after natural disasters left people without power. During her keynote address, Chun passed out Solar Puff lights to everyone in attendance and turned off the lights. Everyone switched on their solar lanterns, eliciting ooo’s and aww’s. The lights illuminated the entire auditorium, demonstrating the invention’s power.

“I used to get beat up a lot for looking different. So, I became a fighter—not with my fists, but with the light of my heart and mind. You are all light warriors,” Chun said. “My hope is that you leave understanding how powerful you are and that you have the ability to change the world.”

Media Contacts

Lisa Potterresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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