Savannah's Journey: Discovering a Love for Science

posted on January 31, 2014 

Seventeen-year-old Savannah Jensen '14 is just a few months shy from graduating from Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She’s been busy finishing her college applications to some of the nation’s top universities—Stanford is at the top of her list—and preparing to take the next steps in her education. But wherever her future leads, Savannah says it will be shaped by something she discovered at Red Cloud: her passion for science. 

“I’ve always been excited about science, because it connects with elements of my Lakota culture and identity. But when I was a sophomore I took chemistry—and there were so many mechanisms and things happening that you can’t see with the naked eye…I fell in love with that,” says Savannah. “It was a really challenging class with a heavy workload, but I really liked it. It pushed me and brought out the best in me.”

Since that very first day of chemistry class, Savannah has used every resource at Red Cloud to pursue her love for science. In 2010, during her sophomore year, Red Cloud received a new grant from the Toyota USA Foundation to encourage students to pursue advanced science degrees and, ultimately, careers in the field. That investment has taken Savannah on an extraordinary journey—from Alaska to Washington, DC and points in between—to explore possibilities for her own future in science. 

The journey began with Red Cloud’s afterschool science club. As part of the club’s activities, and through Toyota’s new partnership with Red Cloud, Savannah had the chance to attend her first national conference of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), which includes a prominent science competition. The experience, she says, was “an epiphany—a very eye-opening moment. I realized there were so many opportunities out there.” As the winners were announced during the closing ceremony, Savannah promised herself she would present her own research someday.

The following year, Savannah traveled to Alaska to the next AISES conference. Although she didn’t present her own research, she helped another Red Cloud student showcase a project. The experience was thrilling, and she committed herself to pursuing her own independent experiment. When she returned home to Pine Ridge, she started investigating a unique project exploring the effect of Lakota prayer on uranium levels on the reservation. 

"I wanted to do a project and started researching—and realized that uranium is a big issue that’s coming to the reservation. I also noticed that my mom said prayers for our house before moving in, to thank the land. The thought that prayer affects things isn’t entirely new, because its been done with water before—so that was part of the basis for my research,” she explains. “I was able to get ahold of the equipment I needed—a GPS for mapping and a Geiger counter, which measures energy. And I did a radiometric survey, looking at whether there was less radiation where prayers were said.”

Savannah completed her research with another Red Cloud student, Bobby Pourier ’16, and fulfilled her dream of presenting at the next AISES competition, this time in New Mexico. She and Bobby won first place in the Environmental Science category and qualified to participate in Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest pre-college science competition that brings together 1,500 students from 70 countries around the world. It was the furthest any student from the Pine Ridge Reservation had ever gone in the competition.

This year’s AISES conference and competition took place in Denver, Colorado—and Savannah was there to present for the last time as a high school student. She brought the research she conducted as an intern at the National Institutes of Health last summer, looking at how optogenetics can help the brain heal after strokes and nerve damage. And at this closing ceremony, when the winner was announced, it was Savannah. 

“When they called my name for first place, on the inside I wanted to cry. It had been three years since I had that dream to compete, and to know I actually did it was amazing. I had so much support. It was really humbling to know that dreams can come true.”With her last high school competition behind her, Savannah is ready to move on to college, and excited for what the future holds. No matter where her journey takes her, she says she will use her love for science to return to Pine Ridge and support her people. 

“As I move toward my goals after high school, I know there will be obstacles and challenges. But as long as I work hard and focus, I know I’ll be able to achieve my goal of becoming a physician or getting my PhD. And whatever I do, I know I’ll bring it back here to the reservation,” she explains. 

“I think science is part of indigenous life. It’s a way of problem solving, to help us find solutions to health problems [on the reservation]. And that’s important for our people. I believe it will help move us forward.”

All Content, ©Red Cloud Indian School, 2014