Every year AISES recognizes outstanding achievement among Indigenous people in STEM fields with the six Professional Awards. The winners of three of the awards — Executive Excellence, Technical Excellence, and Most Promising Engineer or Scientist — are selected based on achievements in specific categories. The Indigenous Excellence Award acknowledges individuals who have done substantial work to advance STEM programs and opportunities, while the Blazing Flame Award goes to someone who has opened doors for Indigenous students and professionals in STEM education and careers. The criteria for selecting the Professional of the Year Award winner are broader and based on overall leadership and technical achievement. Because the Professional of the Year is selected from among all the nominees, this is the one award that does not accept direct nominations. Here are the winners.
In some of Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova’s earliest memories, water is a prominent feature. She vividly recalls the silver basin — which looked to her like an oversized teapot — that her grandmother used to heat bathwater on the stove. It’s a pleasant memory, but one also laced with recollections of what a struggle it was to obtain clean water for bathing and drinking. “I have memories of how my family traveled over dirt roads to get water for our daily needs,” she says.
These days, Dr. Tulley-Cordova devotes countless hours working to ensure that everyone living in the Navajo Nation has ready access to clean, high-quality water. As a principal hydrologist for the tribe’s Department of Water Resources, Dr. Tulley-Cordova fills a role that is as expansive as it is important. The position requires deep knowledge about water-related science and research, with responsibilities that include everything from representing the Navajo Nation in water rights meetings to accessing funding and working with multiple partners to plan, design and implement water projects to helping educate the community about water issues.
“It’s always about the next generation in our thinking.”
It’s also a job that involves crisis management skills. “During the pandemic, we knew it’s important to wash our hands for 20 seconds. But if there’s no piped water at a home and you use a single basin for everyone to wash their hands and dump it out after each round, that means more trips to gather water,” says Dr. Tulley-Cordova. In response, she was a part of a team, the Navajo Nation Water Access Coordination Group, that coordinated the rapid construction of 59 transitional water points, in communities that did not have a preexisting water point, across the Navajo Nation, which reduced the average travel time to access safe water by 38 minutes.
Dr. Tulley-Cordova’s journey to a career managing and preserving the world’s most precious resource really began in her fourth-grade class. Her teacher, Mrs. Enfield, was enthusiastic about hands-on learning and teaching the scientific method. She encouraged Dr. Tulley-Cordova to enter NAISEF (the AISES National American Indian Science and Engineering Fair). Her project was building a water filtration system and, for her, the science wasn’t the most challenging part. “I was shy as a kid,” she says. “It was easy to do the work for the project but having to communicate the science, especially to strangers, was terrifying.” Still, she persevered. “That was the first time I participated in science where new doors opened,” she recalls. “I was challenged to get outside the box and test my capabilities.”
She hasn’t stopped challenging herself. After a high school counselor told her not to bother pursuing her education because she was just going to end up pregnant and another reservation statistic, Dr. Tulley-Cordova went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, interdisciplinary graduate certificate, and PhD. But she has never looked at academic achievement as a path to a better life for herself alone. “My relatives said get your education,” she explains. “But they strongly encouraged us to come back and help not just the family and people in the immediate community, but the Navajo Nation.”
To be sure, Dr. Tulley-Cordova faces many challenges in her important work, especially as climate change affects water resources more acutely each year. Yet Dr. Tulley-Cordova points to the resilience and long-term vision that animate people in the Navajo Nation. “It’s always about the next generation in our thinking. It’s never about putting self above others, but about the welfare of the community,” she says. “I think about my son and daughter and when they have kids one day. What am I doing now to create a better future for them?”