Mentor program bridges Indigenous knowledge, Western science to build tribal capacity, protect ecosystems

Flowering camas meadow
Understanding soil health in camas meadows and other Northwest ecosystems is among research mentorship projects planned to support tribal resilience through the new BioRISe project, led by WSU and U of I scholars.

A mentorship program launching this fall at Washington State University and the University of Idaho connects college graduates with Native knowledge holders and western science mentors to understand and protect the delicate ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest.

Funded by a $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and led by WSU soil scientist Tarah Sullivan in partnership with the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) and Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) Tribes, the new program builds Tribal capacity, helping budding scientists from Tribal communities bridge Indigenous and western knowledge systems through science, technology, and innovation. Working from the cellular to the global scale, mentees will address challenges that threaten long-established communities, foodways, and traditions.

“Tribal communities have tens of thousands of years of ecosystem knowledge,” said Sullivan, associate professor of soil microbiology in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “Among academic scientists, there’s a willingness and desire to ethically engage, collaborate, and work with Tribes to create and share new understanding. This program provides resources and builds infrastructure for us to do that together.”

Titled “BioRISE: Biological Resilience for Indigenous Systems Empowerment,” the project is part of NSF’s Research and Mentoring for Postbaccalaureates (RaMP) program. Launched in 2023, RaMP supports building a competitive and highly representative STEM workforce in the biological sciences.

Tarah Sullivan
Tarah Sullivan, associate professor with WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, leads the BioRISE resilience mentoring project. Sullivan was inspired to launch the project after learning about the Two-Eyed Seeing concept, which examines the world through both Indigenous and western viewpoints.

“Through BioRISE, we’re supporting a fundamentally different way of thinking about capacity building and supporting tribes. We’re upholding tribal sovereignty and self-determination through co-creation of projects and shared knowledge systems,” Sullivan said.

For mentorship, the BioRISE team seeks 30 individuals who have finished their bachelor’s degree and who have an interest in building their knowledge base and research skillset within the context of supporting Tribal nation capacity building. Ideal mentees would have great interest not only in tribally defined research areas, but also in working for nations or organizations that serve them, Sullivan said.

Recruitment will focus on individuals who are citizens or members of Pacific Northwest nations. Additional participant selection criteria will be determined based on Tribal input.

Program leaders emphasized collaboration with nations in co-developing research priorities and design, recruitment criteria, and mentor criteria, which will be firmed up over the course of the first year. 

Shanny Spang Gion
Shanny Spang Gion, visiting tribal scholar at the University of Idaho, co-leads the mentorship project. “In my early career, this program would have been phenomenal,” Spang Gion says. “It would have allowed me to stay in my community and test the waters, learning how the research process unfolds as a Northern Cheyenne person informed by Northern Cheyenne knowledge on Northern Cheyenne land.”

“It’s fundamental to this project that we center Tribal nations’ inherent sovereignty,” said Shanny Spang Gion, co-primary investigator and College of Natural Resources’ Visiting Tribal Scholar at U of I. “We can do that by co-designing and co-producing processes with Tribal nation partners that address their priorities, knowing and embracing the complexities of doing so.”

Tribally connected research projects currently under consideration for mentee participation include work on how environmental contaminants affect crayfish, a keystone aquatic species and Indigenous food; research with Tribal hatchery managers to understand how warming stream temperatures affect wild salmon spawn rates; and understanding how forest and soil health respond to fire, disease, and pest pressure to help identify factors for resilience.

With Native communities depending on soil health for water storage and purification as well as production of important root crops to maintain traditional foodways, mentees may join scientists from WSU and the Nez Perce Tribe investigating how communities of soil microbes help ensure food sovereignty and resilience.

“To engage mentees in ways that really center their communities, priorities, and knowledge is really exciting,” Spang Gion said. “Whatever tribe you come from or are working for, you absolutely can formulate your research questions with multiple knowledges.”

Salmon stream
Research under consideration for the BioRise project includes work with tribal nations to understand how warming stream temperatures affect wild salmon.

During their year-long research experience, mentees will receive a stipend to live in the Inland Northwest, either close to university resources or embedded in their communities. Before engaging with their projects, all members will take part in U of I’s Indigenous Knowledge Field Camp operated by Professor Jerry McMurtry. A planned annual research summit will share goals and progress with incoming cohorts.

BioRISE spans more than a half-dozen disciplines in science and education, with mentors from WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and College of Arts and Sciences, as well as U of I’s College of Natural Resources and College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.

Lead investigators include, at WSU, Kenneth Lokensgard, Center for Native American Research & Collaboration; Erica Crespi, School of Biological Sciences; Laura Bartley, Institute of Biological Chemistry; and Maren Friesen, Department of Plant Pathology. At U of I, leaders include Mary Engels, Department of Natural Resources and Society; and Brant Miller, Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Sullivan hopes that the project builds trust between Tribal and academic communities and that all participants come away with a fuller understanding of diverse viewpoints.

“By working together, having conversations, and listening, we want to build relationships that will last lifetimes,” Sullivan said. 

To learn more about the project or mentee/mentor opportunities, email to or visit


  • Tarah Sullivan, Associate Professor, WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences,
  • Mary Engels, Assistant Professor, UI Department of Natural Resources and Society,