UBNOW and NASA STAFF
Published December 19, 2023
Senior UB physics major Alyssa Warrior’s fascination with space began as a child at the Seneca Nation Cattaraugus Reservation south of Buffalo. At night, while listening to scary stories her father told around a campfire, she would gaze at the sky.
“Looking at stars was always my favorite thing,” Warrior says. “I think I’ve always been interested in the natural world.”
Inside her house, she would stare out the sliding glass door looking to catch one more celestial sight.
“I was always like, ‘One more, just one more shooting star,’’’ she recalls. “I just couldn’t stop. I loved to see them.”
Those interests eventually led Warrior, who is Onödowá’ga’ (Seneca) and belongs to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, to an internship last summer at NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio. While there, she worked on validating and improving a control system model for hybrid-electric aircraft.
Adjusting the model and combing over code for hours to make improvements reminded Warrior of her skywatching memories.
“At one point, I needed to stop,” she says. “But I’d be thinking, well, maybe I’ll just make one more adjustment and that’ll help.”
Warrior never expected to come to NASA. But after attending an American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) conference and meeting Glenn engineer Joseph Connolly, she was recruited as an intern.
“I got to tour a couple labs,” she says. “My favorite was SLOPE Lab, where they test rover wheels for future moon and Mars missions.”
Outreach is integral to bringing more Indigenous people to NASA, says Connolly, who shares Warrior’s Haudenosaunee background and has mentored a handful of other Indigenous interns during his 19 years at Glenn.
“I think one of the reasons that it’s really important to get more Indigenous people at NASA, and just people with different perspectives, is because the problems that we work on are ridiculously hard,” Connolly explains.
Warrior sees a link between Indigenous perspectives and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“I think a lot of Native people specifically are connected with nature and have an interest in learning from it,” she says. “I think that’s its own science.”
In addition, working on hybrid-electric aircraft and sustainability aligned with her cultural values, Warrior says.
“Within Native communities, that is very important,” she says. “It’s not always just trying to go to space; it’s also just trying to improve the planet that we’re on now.”
Along with continuing outreach, Warrior suggests that those at NASA and others seeking to connect with Indigenous people learn about Indigenous heritage and history.
“Those are all really important things to know before even trying to open your arms up to Native people because then you‘re aware of where they’re coming from and certain struggles that they face,” Warrior says. “That makes it easier to reach out.”
The NASA assignment was her second research experience; her first was a Research Experiences for Undergraduates at the University of Chicago.
“I would recommend everyone take advantage of research opportunities that are offered to students,” Warrior says. “I’m really grateful to the Department of Indigenous Studies and the Indigenous community at UB, as they have been such a support over my last couple of semesters.”