An older gentleman stands at the edge of a cliff wearing a dark coat and a black baseball cap. In front of him is a vast ocean with dozens of birds flying above.
ComSciCon keynote speaker Cana Itchuaqiyaq’s father, Caleb Pungowiyi, on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska, where he collaborated with government scientists to conduct bird counts. Photo courtesy of Cana Itchuaqiyaq.

“Indigenous Knowledges are scientific, expert, and valid — and useful,” stated Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq, keynote speaker for ComSciCon-Virginia Tech 2023. Recognizing the truth of that statement is key to antiracist science communication, she said.

    Itchuaqiyaq’s address, titled “Recognizing Science: Antiracist Science Communication,” incorporated storytelling from their own life, thoughts about storytelling from their academic perspective, and an introduction to analysis of stories. 

    An assistant professor of professional and technical writing in the English department at Virginia Tech, Itchuaqiyaq is an Iñupiaq scholar from northwestern Alaska. Although they have plenty of academic training, they pointed out in their talk that it is not necessary to have a college degree to do science.  Itchuaqiyaq’s father, Caleb Pungowiyi, recognized Indigenous Knowledge as scientific understanding and served as an early role model. He advocated for the inclusion of Indigenous peoples as leaders in and contributors to research projects conducted on their lands and waters. 

    With a story about a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey of bird populations on an island off the Alaskan coast, Itchuaqiyaq demonstrated the point. The island’s human inhabitants knew that its feathered inhabitants numbered 5 million, but the federal agency sent two western-trained scientists to conduct the survey “scientifically” — that is, according to western scientific methods. Pungowiyi acted as collaborator and guide to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers, obtained access to the island for them, and, with the permission of the islanders, coordinated the population survey. To none of the islanders’ surprise, the western-trained scientists found that there were 5 million birds on the island.

    Further examples Itchuaqiyaq gave of the validity and usefulness of scientific and engineering expertise among Alaska Natives included the knowledge required to hunt, harvest, land, butcher, and store meat from a bowhead whale, a critical food source; to travel by sled or snowmobile across melting ice; to make and use skin kayaks; to stay warm in Arctic weather; and to adapt to climate change.

    Because climate change is affecting northern environments and communities more quickly than other areas of Earth, Indigenous peoples often find themselves the subjects of research. And stories, Itchuaqiyaq said, are often used by Indigenous peoples to respond to researchers’ questions. For the researchers, then, an ability to read meaning in stories is essential. Itchuaqiyaq walked the audience through several stories and demonstrated methods for gleaning data from each story. A tale of seal hunting, for example, resulted in a table full of information that allowed a calculation of ice thickness at the time of the adventure, data useful to the researchers.

An Alaskan feminine-presenting person with dark brown hair, a heavy coat with a fluffy gray hood, brown eyes, and facial dot tattoos on their chin.
Cana Itchuaqiyaq. Courtesy of Cana Itchuaqiyaq.

    Antiracist science communication is a practice, Itchuaqiyaq emphasized, and requires recognizing and respecting scientific expertise in all its forms. Finding the data in a narrative is one example of recognizing science in a form that some of us may not be used to finding it.

    “We were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from Dr. Itchuaqiyaq’s personal stories and experiences,” said ComSciCon organizing committee chair Sara Teemer Richards. “Her keynote was a powerful reminder that science communication is as much about listening as it is about sharing, and that both are necessary to make science as inclusive as possible.”

    ComSciCon, a communicating science conference planned by graduate students for graduate students, began in 2012 as a partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now allows franchised chapters across the United States and Canada to host their own events. Virginia Tech became a ComSciCon chapter in 2019.

    ComSciCon-Virginia Tech 2023 was hosted by members of Virginia Tech’s student Communicating Science club and sponsored by the Center for Communicating Science, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. This year’s organizers were biological sciences Ph.D. candidates Sara Teemer Richards, Emma Bueren, and Mychala Snead, all officers of the Communicating Science Club.