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CRITFC Genetics Lab Hosts First Indigenous Intern

Nov 1, 2023

Intern Aiden Rigdon working in CRITFC’s Hagerman Fish Genetics Lab.

by Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications

HAGERMAN, Idaho — Nestled on the banks of the Snake River, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s Hagerman Fish Genetics Lab has produced some groundbreaking research in the field of fisheries genetics. But this year, a new chapter unfolded with development of an internship program intended to stimulate opportunities for tribal students interested in science careers.

CRITFC’s genetics program began its first chapter in 1999 — the result of many discussions its member tribes had regarding the burgeoning importance of genetics in the realm of fishery research and management. CRITFC joined efforts with the University of Idaho, creating a partnership dedicated to the research and training in the production, supplementation, life history, and recovery of Columbia Basin salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and other native fish. This partnership made way for a cutting-edge genetics lab. Though the lab has been incredibly successful in contributing to the preservation and study of fisheries genetics, tribal student interest in this specific field was mild.

An internship was created to spark interest in fisheries genetics among tribal students across the region. The first internship was completed this summer by Aidan Rigdon. Aidan, a student at Mt. Hood Community College and a descendant of the Yakama Nation, embarked on a journey to deepen his understanding of fisheries and contribute to the preservation of an ancestral way of life. His internship focused on genetic studies of salmon and steelhead, work that represents a critical intersection of tradition and cutting-edge science. For Aidan, the opportunity to be the very first Indigenous genetics intern at the lab represents not only a personal achievement but a continuation of his family’s legacy. Early on in his scholastic career, Aidan knew he would follow in the footsteps of one of his parents. On his mother’s side, education has been the path most his family members have taken, while on his father’s side a common career path has been in forestry. Aidan’s father went into forestry with the Yakama Nation and his uncle graduated from Yale with a degree in forestry.

“I have learned so much; this is one of the best internships I have seen,” said Aiden. “I came in feeling like I was in the dark and didn’t know what I would be learning. Everyone here has been a big help.”

Science caught Aidan’s eye from the beginning days of his studies. He said learning little-known facts and being able to use those in applied ways was rewarding. “I’ve always been interested in science, I just didn’t know what field,” said Aiden. “Once I had the opportunity to do fisheries technology and genetics, I took it. I wasn’t sure at first whether I’d enjoy it, but so far, it’s been great.” He said being outdoors and being able to work in a field with an environmental background has been the path he was leaning more towards and when he decided to pursue fisheries, he was elated that he could use his interest in science to marry the two.

Dr. Shawn Narum, CRITFC’s Chief Scientist who oversees the genetics program, said the internship is an opportunity for tribal students to come out and contribute to the work being done at the Idaho lab. His group includes 16 employees that support tribal recovery efforts in the region. They also work collaboratively with University of Idaho faculty and staff at the shared facility in Hagerman. Primary areas of research to support the tribes include genetic tagging and monitoring of fisheries, studying genetic effects of hatchery practices and examining genetic adaptation to local environments. Shawn said Aidan fit right into the group. “There are a lot of good things going on here with this internship. It’s been great to have our first student cycle through, especially a student as successful and talented as Aidan.”

Aiden working with fish in one of the lab’s holding tanks.

Being able to witness first-hand the ground-breaking work at the lab was the highlight of Aidan’s time there over the summer.

“I have learned so much; this is one of the best internships I have seen,” said Aiden. “I came in feeling like I was in the dark and didn’t know what I would be learning. Everyone here has been a big help.”

“What you learn here is different than any other fishery place I have been. There’s a whole different world of scientific opportunities, all the big picture stuff you learn about in school is filled in here. The level of analysis is in-depth. You can do biology, field work, hatchery work, and genetic work here. I would suggest this internship to anyone looking for something different or something more within the field,” said Aidan.

Aidan’s presence at CRITFC has opened doors for future generations of tribal students who aspire to follow in his footsteps. “Aidan’s participation in this internship is a milestone for the lab and a testament to the value of diverse perspectives in scientific research,” said Aja DeCoteau, CRITFC’s Executive Director. “He brought a unique understanding of the cultural and ecological intricacies of the Columbia River Treaty Tribes, which is invaluable in our pursuit of sustainable fisheries management. We are hoping to grow this internship and keep our tribal students engaged in their early years of study.”

As Aidan’s career progresses, he envisions a future where the traditional knowledge of his people and the advancements of modern science work hand in hand. He dreams of a day when the salmon once again thrive in the waters of the Columbia River, ensuring a sustainable legacy for future generations. “In the lab, I’m not just studying fish. I’m working towards a future where our people can continue to rely on the river for sustenance and spiritual connection,” Aidan shares with unwavering determination. After completing his summer internship, Aidan was accepted to the University of Idaho, where he will continue his education and aims for a career in fisheries science.

Aidan Rigdon’s journey as the first tribal student intern at the CRITFC Hagerman Genetic Lab is more than just a story of personal accomplishment. It is a testament to the enduring power of tradition, the potential for collaboration between cultures, and the promise of a sustainable future for all who call the Pacific Northwest home. After such a successful first round of the new internship program, CRITFC will be preparing for the 2024 summer internship program in the coming months. “We’re intending to have a couple openings next summer and build off this wonderful experience,” said Shawn Narum.

Applications for next year’s internship will be available early next year. The program will be open to college students who are members or descendants of one of the four CRITFC member tribes.