Rocket Scientist: Shayna Begay
by Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Learning how Coyote created the galaxies from one of her uncles as a child inspired Shayna Begay (Navajo Nation/Jewish) to study the universe. These teachings about the Diné (Navajo) universe ignited Begay’s curiosity, who after a hot summer day of herding sheep with her two sisters, would look up into the starry nights for constellations like the Three Sisters – or Orion’s Belt.
“My uncle told me about the Coyote Story – how the constellations were formed,” Begay said. From Diné creation, Begay learned about the intellectual designers – the Holy People, or Diyin Diné’e. “As the Holy people were arguing, Coyote got frustrated and threw the stars in the sky. That’s how Coyote created the Milk Way.”
Begay calls Northern Navajo Agency in Dinétah home – where she learned about science and traditional cultural knowledge. Her grandmother, whether she knew it or not, taught math concepts through rug-weaving. Helping her family’s business with the creation of jewelry and art to sell to tourists at Four Corners Monument also taught her about being a team player.
All of these experiences inspired Begay’s STEM interest as a young girl, and inspired her to be the rocket scientist she is today. Or as she says in her own words, a “rocket surgeon” for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Where I come from, my family would not have been able to afford to put me through college. I worked hard in school, so that I could earn scholarships and help offset the cost of attending college,” Begay said, noting that she’s grateful to the American Indian Graduate Center to feature her as part of its 50th Anniversary.
Along with Diné cultural histories, it was also her parents who continuously fed her curiosity. For instance, Begay was exposed to intellectual conversations of blackholes at Diné College. Summer enrichment programs at Cal Tech and the University of Denver, as well as seasonal trips on and off the Navajo Nation, with her family also shaped Begay.
“When I would go back to school, I would read about what I was seeing and learning in the night time from my family,” she said. “To me that was biggest inspiration growing up – seeing all these stars.”
One trip that Begay remembers being the most impactful was her visit to the Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. The massive crater, caused by a collision between earth and space over 50,000 years ago, is where Shayna saw her life journey unfold.
Among the scientists and engineers listed on the wall at the Meteor Crater gift shop, she saw many esteemed contributors to the space sciences. However, she saw no one like her – Native, Indigenous, or Diné. She told her parents that one day she be up there.
“That’s the earliest instance of where I can think about doing what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Begay says.
Begay approached higher education with the goal of being an aerospace engineer. Eventually, she matriculated at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), a feeder school of NASA Scientists and Engineers. At FIT, she achieved both her bachelors and master’s degree in aerospace engineering.
“I think that having the Gates Millennium Scholarship really helped me focus on the different tasks that I set for myself,” Begay said about she had to navigate the rigor of FIT and the challenge of being homesick.
From comparing and contrasting the various worldviews of space science, she saw how traditional cultural knowledge provided her a unique perspective to study aerospace engineering in the university. For example, western science and Indigenous teachings have more things in common, like how the Diné Creation Story is a narrative of evolution, she says.
“People pull some stock in the western world, but looking at the Creation story of the Diné – I have immense respect when you look at it from a scientific perspective, since it is a story of evolution,” Begay adds.
After graduating from FIT, Begay arrived at Sandia National Laboratories. She is one of the engineers responsible for the development, testing, and production of specialized nonnuclear components, and quality assurance and systems engineering for all U.S. nuclear weapons.
To better explain her technical role at Sandia, Begay employs the analogy of a bow and arrow weapon. She creates shaft of the bow. The shaft, so to speak, is the most important part of any nuclear technology she helps design.
“I am one of many who work on building the shaft and feathers,” Shayna explains. “I like to perfect the shaft of the bow. The arrowhead is one part, but I’m focused on the shaft,” all of which help the arrow travel to its target.
Begay’s personal and academic journey is why American Indian Graduate Center is featuring her for its 50th Anniversary. “It is incredibly humbling, and I’m a huge advocate for American Indian Graduate Center. They have been really good to me and supporting me through school,” she says. “I’m happy to do what I can to support American Indian Graduate Center, so they can continue to help the next generation of native students.”