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Kat Milligan-McClellan/Napaaqtuk

microbiologist, University of Connecticut 






Her research is shaped by her responsibility to her Indigenous community and a wish to open science to more native groups.. 

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IWAK Kat Milligan-McClellan SQ.jpg

Wrong Path

In high school, Kat envisioned a path that would help outsiders learn more about her culture.Tourists came often to her home town, Kotzebue, so Kat set her sights on running the hotel there, killing two birds with one stone: it would be a source of income for her and the community, and it would allow them to share their culture with people from other places. So she set off to a far-away school, Cornell, and its hotel administration program.


“I quickly learned that was not for me.” She didn’t enjoy the classes, and her grade point average suffered. Kat went home and started over. She worked to raise money and her GPA, attending community college, before another new start, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.“I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t want to go into tourism.’ The other big thing that people do in Kotzebue if they have a higher education is, they’re lawyers. I didn’t want to do that. Or they’re doctors, so I thought, ‘I’ll be a doctor.’”

Giving Up

Doctor Won't Do

“I was raised not to think, ‘What is going to be best for me,’ but ‘What is going to be best for me

because I’m going to be giving to my community. As an Iñupiat, I could contribute to the health

of the people back home by being a doctor. The reason that was important was because when I

was growing up all the doctors were from outside. There were no Iñupiaq doctors working in my

home town. There were health aides, and there were even Native healers. We have traditional

healers that were Iñupiaq, who were studying ways of healing that had been passed down for

10,000 years in our region, but there weren’t Native doctors with that western M.D. medical

degree after them. I thought I could contribute by being someone who was not just a medical

doctor, but who would understand the community from within the community, who would be able

to understand how the health of a person is affected by the fact that they are part of this

community that has been in Alaska for 10,000 years.”

While going to school, Kat held jobs at nursing homes. “I was working with nurses, nursing

assistants, and doctors. I would see the doctors and the interactions they had with people.

Because of the way the western U.S. health care system works, the doctors were only spending

a very short amount of time with their patients.” To Kat, that meant they were not contributing to

the overall health of those people. “They were treating individual symptoms of diseases, but

they weren’t treating the person as a whole or the community as a whole.” Kat took a step back.

“They weren’t really helping the community as a whole.” Meanwhile, she began working in a

microbiology research lab. “What I learned there was that I could contribute to the overall

knowledge of microbes that cause diseases. Thus I wouldn’t be helping just one or two people

who were immediately around me, but I would be helping the entire community of people by

potentially figuring out how these microbes were causing disease, and how we could prevent

those microbes from causing disease.

A Long Way from Home 

What was it like moving from a tiny North Slope town (population 3,000) to Madison, Wisconsin

(population nearly 300,000)? Kat says, “The biggest adjustment wasn’t moving from rural

Alaska to the lower 48 [states], because I could see what the lower 48 was like from TV shows

and movies.” No, the hardest thing was who wasn’t there: her community. “To get over that, or

not to get over it, but to help with that, I started working with Native tribes, and local Native

students on campus. I became a part of Native American groups including Wunk Sheek and

AISES. Both were important for connecting me with Native students. Even though they came

from other tribes, they still had some things that they shared with me. Many of them had grown

up on reservations, which were similar to my hometown, in that they were mostly Native.

Try This! 

Wunk Sheek is an organization serving Indigenous students and members of the University of

Wisconsin-Madison community who are interested in Indigenous issues.

Advancing Indigenous People in STEM (AISES) aims to support students from high school to graduate

school as they pursue STEM careers. Their offerings include financial education courses for elementary

through high school students,internship opportunities, and job postings.

Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) 



Among the reasons Kat sought out Indigenous groups was to have a setting in

which she could process forced assimilation. Here’s how she defines that: “Forced assimilation

comes in many ways. For me it wasn’t the way we think of it typically — being forced to go to

boarding school, have horrible things [done to you] when you speak your own language… It was

the more mundane forced assimilation, which is teachers reinforcing to you that the knowledge

that has been passed down for 10,000 years is not worthy of being used in medical facilities

because it wasn’t western science, or being told that speaking Iñupiaq is ‘backwards’ and you

really should focus on being fluent in English to succeed, or being told that the dances you do

are fun cultural things but that you shouldn’t dedicate a lot of time to learning it, because it’s not

as valuable as doing homework or getting a 9 to 5 job.”

When she advanced to postdoctoral research, Kat sought out mentors who not only studied

aspects of microbiology that would add most to her learning, but were as passionate about their

teaching their students as they were about their science. Karen Guilleman and Bill Cresko, at

the University of Oregon, held the keys to helping her shape her research, and to mentoring

itself — both of which would support her as she moved through the next few years, developing

her own teaching and lab work.


Alaska’s loss is Connecticut’s gain. To blame was a massive earthquake that shook Anchorage,

where Kat settled to begin her research at the University of Alaska - Anchorage. Kat loved it

there at first, especially the fact that 10 percent of the study body were Alaska Native, and that

she sometimes had students in her classes who were from her hometown of Kotzebue. But

then… “Anchorage experienced a 7.2 (on the Richter scale) earthquake in November of 2018.

What that means is that our entire house shook for several minutes, and it wasn’t just a little

wobble back and forth.” She flings her body back and forth while adding, “It was a violent

shaking for several minutes. It’s scary because you don’t know if you’re going to get hurt by

something that’s falling, or if the people you love are okay. It was the second largest earthquake

that Anchorage has had in the last 50 years, and the one prior to that was the largest

earthquake in the United States (9.6, the 1964 Good Friday earthquake).”

And the aftershocks weren’t a whole lot better — in the fives and sixes. “So these five-point-

something earthquakes happened randomly throughout the year. Or four. Or three. Then

another five.”


Kat had given a talk at the University of Connecticut a few years earlier. They had invited her to apply to

their department, but she’d opted to stay in Anchorage. “But then all

these things happened, and I said, ‘Okay, I think I need to move.’” One of the plusses was the

opportunity to work with Connecticut’s Native community and student population.


Here’s Kat starring in the video event Skype a Scientist.


Wrong Path


Try This! 

Forced assimilation

A Long Way from Home


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