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DU student is first in her tribe with physics degree

A survey course in astronomy sparked Charee Peters' interest in science.

While her ancestors looked up at the stars under dark Western skies and pondered the heavens, Charee Peters has wrestled with complicated formulas and mathematics to try to unravel those same mysteries.

When Peters walks across the stage and graduates from the University of Denver on June 4, it’s believed she will become the first in her Native American tribe to earn a degree in physics.

It’s been a long journey for Peters, 23, with one foot in the past and another in the stars. She says she graduated from high school in the Denver suburb of Parker with hopes for a career in theater. She looked at schools, earned scholarship offers, and then decided that wasn’t what was in her heart. She spent her first college year at Metro State, figuring things out. A survey course on astronomy sparked her passion and she transferred to DU to learn more.

“The only thing I said I didn’t want to do was be a scientist,” she says. “But I started to see the beauty of physics. It’s been a challenge, and I struggled. I still struggle with it. But I enjoy it, and that’s all I can see myself doing anymore.”

But as she plunged into the field of computational physics, trying to understand the life cycle of stars in deep space, she also delved into her family’s past. From her mother’s side, she’s one-eighth Yankton Sioux, a tribe in western South Dakota that’s even mentioned in the journals of famed explorers Lewis and Clark. Her great grandmother was full Yankton Sioux, and Peters is an officially enrolled member of the tribe. She says she isn’t enough of a direct descendant to participate in traditional dances at official ceremonies, but she is recognized as a member.

She attended traditional powwows, visited a reservation and spoke with elders, and eventually she combined the two interests, joining the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). There, she met other Native Americans and found many were the first in their tribes to earn degrees in the sciences.

“Only about 10 percent of the people at this SACNAS conference I was at were even Native American. Most of those were Navajo, and I’m thinking ‘That’s a big tribe, and if they’re the first to get a degree in that, then I wonder if anyone in my smaller tribe has done this,’” she says. “We started calling people all over South Dakota, checking records, asking questions to see if anyone had done this. By the end, everyone told me, ‘You’re the first.’”

“It’s exciting. But it’s kind of terrifying at the same time. You’re alone. But I like to think that I can be an inspiration to others,” she says.

Astronomy Professor Jennifer Hoffman was Peters’ advisor and mentor. She has high praise for the newly minted scientist.

“I’d say she has a rare combination of idealism and groundedness that makes her very successful as a student and a scientist,” Hoffman says. “She’s full of energy and enthusiasm. Working with her constantly reminds me that being able to learn things about the universe is really cool. At the same time, she’s very down to earth and practical. She never loses sight of what’s important to her, and that gives her self-confidence while helping her keep everything in perspective. She’s been a terrific colleague. I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in the future.”

While she’s not from a reservation, Peters has visited one and wants to help high school students there dare to take a chance on a science degree. And she says she’s talking with others in SACNAS about using the video-conferencing computer program Skype to create an online support group for Native American students considering college degrees in the sciences, something to help them through the tough transition from rural reservation life to the competitive world of physics and other sciences.

After she graduates with a bachelor’s of science in physics, plus minors in math, astrophysics and German, Peters hopes to continue her studies at Vanderbilt University with an eye on a master’s degree and, she hopes, a PhD in physics.

“In all honesty, I’m still at the point that I don’t know exactly where I want to go,” she says. “At the moment, I’m not too sure, except that I want to be an astrophysicist.”

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