Dr. James A. Letts – Diversity Statement

My personal experience with diversity primarily stems from my mixed First Nations and European heritage.  My maternal ancestor James Taylor Anderson (1775-1856) emigrated from Scotland to Canada to work in the fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Once in Canada, he met and then married my ancestor Mary Anderson (born Saulteaux First Nation, a branch of the Ojibwe people).  Together with their contemporaries and extended family, they helped form the Métis Nationa diverse group of mixed-race descendants of early European settlers (French, English or Scottish) and usually Wabanaki, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Cree, Ojibwe, Menominee people, or of mixed descent from these peoples. The Métis Nation developed into a distinct culture and had a significant historical impact on the development of Canada as a country.  The Métis Nation is now recognized officially as one of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.  However, due to the racist policies of the early 20th century Canadian government, my great-grandfather William James Anderson was forced to relinquish his First-Nations status and hence that of his descendants.  This meant that growing up I was cut off from this important part of my heritage and was raised essentially without any knowledge of my Métis roots or culture.  It is clear to me now that this was the intention of these racist policies: there was a concerted effort in the late 19th-early 20th century to erase First Nations culture from Canada.  Nowhere is this more clear than with the horrific residential school system implemented at that time to ‘re-educate’ First Nations children by separating them from their families and “assimilating” them into the dominant Canadian culture – with devastating consequences.

In the case of my family, these policies were nearly successful.  However, thanks to the efforts of my great-aunt, who meticulously traced our family back to the 18th century, we were officially reinstated as members of the Métis Nation in the early 2000s.  Since then, I have made an effort to learn about the history and culture of my people.  I am a proud member of the Métis Nation; my ancestors fought alongside the Métis leader Louis Riel (now considered a Father of Canadian Confederation) during the Red River Rebellion, a seminal event in the history of Canada.  During this time, my ancestors fought for the rights of the Métis and other First Nations people of the Red River Settlement, whose territory (known as Rupert’s Land) was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company by the Canadian government without any consultation with the inhabitants.  Although this resistance was ultimately successful, resulting in the formation of the province of Manitoba, Louis Riel was denied amnesty for leading the uprising and was ultimately executed by the Canadian government in 1885.  It wasn’t until over a hundred years later in 1992 that the Canadian Parliament passed a unanimous resolution to name Louis Riel as Founder of Manitoba, and now the province celebrates Louis Riel Day on the third Monday of February each year.

My family history makes me very sensitive to the plight of minorities against dominant cultures.  If proper support is not provided, distinct cultures can be lost, and human progresswhich requires diversity to be successfulwill be negatively impacted.  Throughout my scientific career thus far, I have had the opportunity to work with and meet some of the greatest living scientists.  Two of the most significant lessons I have learned are: the importance of mentoring the next generation and the importance of imagination and creativity when trying to solve difficult problems.  One path to creative solutions is through diversity: approaching challenges with different ways of thinking.  This is why programs such as CAMPOS at UC Davis are important: they provide support for minorities and foster diversity, which may otherwise be overshadowed.

As an Assistant Professor at UC Davis I strive to be a good mentor for the next generation of scientists.  Good mentoring starts with listening: every individual is different and has different needs and goals.  I engage the people in my lab in conversations about science, career development and mentoring on a regular basis. Not only is every individual different but also, as time goes on, people’s needs and goals change.  In my opinion, mentoring is a continuous conversation between individuals and I will continually endeavor to listen to the voices of my students and postdocs.

Unfortunately, the Native American voice is still not often heard in the laboratory.  Therefore, a major motivation for me to run an independent research program is to encourage more Native American youth to pursue STEM careers.  I was heartened and encouraged that groups and programs such as the Native American Academic Student Success CenterAmerican Indian Recruitment and Retention (AIRR) as well as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) exist at UC Davis and are so active.  I am extremely enthusiastic to be involved in their initiatives and further contribute to their development.  I believe that, in order to increase Native American enrollment in STEM, outreach beyond the University campus and at early ages is necessary.  Therefore, I am involved in recruitment efforts like lab tours and faculty panels as well as retention efforts on campus such as the Native welcome orientation.

Throughout my career, I have most often worked in teams and have also managed several multi-lab international collaborations.  I have performed scientific experiments in Canada, Denmark, the USA, the UK and Austria and directly worked alongside colleagues from over 20 countries.  I have also mentored several female and male graduate and undergraduate students as well as helped teach graduate courses.  These experiences taught me the importance of clear communication, of humility in asking for help and learning from other team members, and of requesting and accepting feedback in order to improve.  They also instilled a passion for inspiring others to bring out their best.  As an Assistant Professor at UC Davis it is my goal to create a diverse and inclusive laboratory, and to foster such an environment on campus as well.  Promoting inclusiveness allows for diverse voices to be heard, which results in creative problem solving.  I firmly believe that providing an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing their ideas and where everyone can develop their full potential is an important endeavor for anyone interested in doing great science.