The College of Science is celebrating Native American Heritage Month by featuring some of the College’s outstanding students with Native American roots. Our next featured student is Damon Shorty, a senior who is studying Statistics/Data Science and Sustainable Built Environments.
The College of Science spoke with Shorty to learn more about his journey to the University of Arizona, growing up as a member of the Navajo Nation, and the people who have impacted him the most.
Statistics/Data Science & Sustainable Built Environments
College of Science: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and your journey to the University of Arizona.
Shorty: I was born and raised in the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation. I am Naasht'ézhí Dine'é (the Zuni Clan), born for Tó'aheedlíinii (the Water Flows Together Clan). My maternal grandparents are Ta'neeszahnii (the Tangle Clan) and my paternal grandparents are Kinyaa'áanii (the Towering House Clan). I enjoy listening to hip-hop music, mainly the underground, and watching a variety of sports and poker. I also enjoy a good hike into nature. My educational journey started at a Navajo boarding school on the reservation. I spent kindergarten through eighth grade there, so I have many memories of this place. My passion for science began there and I also met some of my closest friends there. One of the coolest things that I had the chance to experience while at boarding school was going to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I often look back and think how fortunate we (a few students and I) were to have experienced this in our lifetime as kids coming from the Navajo reservation. I graduated from boarding school and had my first experience of the public education system when I attended high school. I played basketball all four years and ran cross country for one year in high school, which was sometimes tough because of the daily one-hour commute to school and home. Despite the long commute, I enjoyed my time in high school, and I graduated high school with a few academic scholarships to the University of New Mexico. I was set to attend UNM, but I saw an opportunity to come to Tucson to chase a dream of mine, that was to attend the University of Arizona. I enrolled at Pima Community College to work on my associate of science so that I could transfer to the UA under one of the programs between PCC and UA. During this time at PCC, I took a few mathematics courses from a math professor that inspired me to continue learning mathematics. I really appreciated how this professor made mathematics fun, challenging, and rewarding. I graduated with honors from PCC and had fulfilled the transfer requirements to the UA.
COS: When looking back on your childhood and spending time with family, are there any favorite traditions or memories that stick out to you?
Shorty: The memories that stand out the most to me are when my parents, sister, and/or grandma would take trips to a variety of places for powwows and/or song and dances. My sister and I would often compete in events for prizes or participate in events for the benefit of the body, mind, and spirit. These trips were fun for getting the chance to meet and dance with other Native Americans, experiencing a new environment, learning about my heritage, and spending time with the family.
COS: Who are some of the people who have made the greatest impact on your life?
Shorty: There are quite a few people who have made an impact on my life. My parents for always being so supportive and loving and for being my biggest inspiration. They have both shown me how dedication and hard work can help you achieve your goals in life. They have also shown me the rewards for giving back to your people and those in need. My sister, grandma, and late grandpa, for their support and encouragement to achieve excellence. My late paternal grandparents, for being an inspiration and encouraging me to continue my education. Mr. Alexander Benally, my late uncle, for sharing traditional knowledge/songs, being an inspiration, and for encouraging and blessing my educational journey. Mr. Bryson Charley, my late best friend, for being a huge inspiration and always being there like a real brother. Mrs. Vicky Pioche, a family member and former teacher, for always encouraging me to continue my education and being an inspiration. Mr. Danny Secrest, my high school (H.S.) basketball coach, for contributing to the development of my leadership skills and work ethic. Mrs. Mary Maxwell and Ms. Vliss, my H.S. mathematics and science teachers, for leaving an everlasting curiosity to understand mathematics and the earth sciences. My former mathematics/statistics professors, Mr. Jose Menendez, Mr. Antonio Rubio, and Ms. Xueying Tang, for making mathematics fun and rewarding and for being an inspiration. Mr. William “Bill” Velez, my mathematics advisor, for guidance and being an inspiration. Mr. Victor Braitberg, my mentor and former professor, for the inspiration, encouragement, and guidance.
COS: What was it that drew you to your area of research and expertise?
Kaska: My interest in construction and buildings all started with my father. My father, who has over thirty years of construction experience, would take me to work with him when I was young. I would often play on the scaffolding or look for scrapes of wood to play with. One day, I began to wonder why there was so much waste materials at the various construction sites. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a sustainability issue in construction, but I did recognize this pattern at a young age. As I got older, I started to understand the different processes involved in constructing a building and the various materials that are associated with each process by asking my father countless questions. It was during these times that I started realizing that there were some issues and some benefits in the construction process. When I get the time, I like to hike around Chaco Canyon, New Mexico to look at the ruins in the distance and think about how they were able to build their structures without all the fancy technology we have today. Their structures and designs were simple, yet effective in their purpose. When I come back to the modern city, I see buildings that are designed fancy, but these buildings rely heavily on mechanical systems. These contrasting things made me really think about the sustainable designs of our buildings and environment. My interest in sustainability stems from my heritage. As a Native American, we are raised in a culture that encompasses sustainability. So, it was always natural for me to question a lot of things related to the sustainability of our environment and buildings. My research interest is in sustainable buildings and that was due to a large part of being around my father. I use statistics and data science to help inform better building design decisions through research and analysis. This, however, is not my only sole interest as I have other areas of interest in using statistics and data science to help create better environments for wildlife and humans.
COS: What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
Kaska: I enjoy doing research and data analysis. I find it very rewarding when research can help wildlife and/or the natural environment. It is also fun to work with like-minded people to achieve common goals. Lastly, being able to represent my tribe and the Native American population in the fields of STEM.