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Oregon State zoology senior

Zoology senior merges cultural identity and scientific curiosity

By Srila Nayak

Scientific knowledge can ensure the survival and protection of forests, coastal habitats, oceans and wildlife that are central to one’s cultural identity and heritage. With its unique and cherished relationship to the coast, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon is strengthening its conservation practices with the help of young scientists like Devonte Casey. A graduating senior in zoology at Oregon State University, Casey has been deeply inspired by the synergy between his academic pursuits and his identity as a Native American.

Two years ago, Casey began working in a biological research internship position with the Department of Natural Resources and Culture of the Siletz Indians Tribes, which is devoted to conservation and management of natural resources on tribally-held lands. Passionate about the protection of marine habitats, Casey has conducted biological sampling of fish and contributed to river restoration projects.

While this got him hooked on the science of ecological restoration in rivers and on the coast, enrolling in one of the most popular courses at Oregon State, Marine Biology and Ecology (BI 450), close on the heels of his summer research, was equally transformative.

"I can say with 100% certainty that the reason I am studying zoology, specifically marine science, is because of my coastal traditions and my coastal tribe."

The course, which ordinarily incorporates immersive learning and hands-on exposure to a wide spectrum of marine organisms, flora and fauna under the auspices of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, was taught entirely via Zoom due to COVID-19 safety measures. Despite the changed structure, BI 450, nonetheless, succeeded in captivating students.

“The marine biology course opened my eyes to numerous research possibilities. In the future, I would like to conduct research on marine algae species along the Oregon coast,” said Casey.

OSU Zoology senior volunteering in vineyard

Casey during one of his many planting and restoration projects.

As part of his internship program, Casey worked towards planting and restoring an ecosystem of willow trees along the Siletz river, famed home of the Chinook salmon, to establish more safe habitats for juvenile fish. At this time, he was also involved with a Tribal youth project to design and plan an acre-wide community garden that encompassed many aspects of Indigenous culture.

Casey and fellow members visited nature reserves and parks along the coast to learn, draw inspiration and draft a plan for the garden. Their design and plan have been proposed for funding which, if successful, would bring the garden to life.

Finding inspiration to study zoology

After graduation, Casey aspires to work in research labs for at least a year to explore and deepen his knowledge on specific areas of marine and environmental science before applying to master’s programs. His interest in science emerged early due to childhood influences.

“What I loved the most at OSU was being able to expand my horizons with different classes and by meeting new people.”

Born and raised in Corvallis and Albany, Casey, along with his younger brother Terrell and his mother, Ticey Mason, moved to Portland where he completed his middle school and high school. Mason works in public health for the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, which serves the 43 federally recognized tribes in Oregon, Idaho and Washington on public health related projects. Casey grew up watching Mason and her colleagues contribute to public health programs such as oral health, cancer and diabetes research within Native communities.

“I just knew I wanted to do science and make a difference. I can say with 100% certainty that the reason I am studying zoology, specifically marine science, is because of my coastal traditions and my coastal tribe,” Casey remarked.

Oregon State zoology senior with fellow Siletz Indian Tribe member

Casey with a fellow Siletz Indian Tribe member at a tribe gathering.

Casey has always stayed close to his roots, frequently visiting family at the Siletz Indians Reservation near Newport for holidays, tribal gatherings and culture camps. He was the co-president of his tribe’s youth council and has been deeply involved in cultural and environmental issues, leading youth groups on beach and estuary cleanup drives.

“I knew from a very young age that I wanted to learn more about marine mammals and zoology just because I witnessed the diversity of the coast,” said Casey.

Taking advantage of all that Oregon State has to offer

If there was one place that Casey was familiar with before his arrival on campus and which would serve as a home away from home of sorts, it was the Native American Longhouse Eena Haws (NAL), a cultural and community center for Indigenous students at Oregon State. Mason, Casey’s mother and an OSU alum, had spent a lot of time there as a student. “She always went to the Native American Longhouse. She met her friends there, she studied there and would do everything there.” Casey, too, has found a haven at the NAL.

While the NAL’s resources — the computers, printers and the meeting rooms — were very helpful, it was the shared cultural identity with other students that gave Casey a sense of belonging at Oregon State University. “It's very nice and affirming to be able to go to these cultural centers, be around people who understand you on a different level and be welcomed with open arms,” he said.

Interacting with peers, mentors and professors has been the most positive aspect of Casey’s experience at Oregon State University. He is deeply appreciative of the breadth of humanity that he crossed paths with, from marine biology peers to choir singers. Casey was a member of the OSU Meistersingers, a tenor/bass ensemble in the music program at the College of Liberal Arts for two years.

“I was one of the few STEM majors there but the singers welcomed me with great warmth, and it was an awesome experience with people I wouldn’t have normally met in my classes,” Casey said. “What I loved the most at OSU was being able to expand my horizons with different classes and by meeting new people.”

Zoology senior with Tribal flag

The pivotal marine biology class has been hands-down the most influential science course for Casey. He has a wall full of drawings in his room of marine mammals and invertebrates he studied in the class and stays in touch with classmates about plans to make a research trip to the coast.

He was inspired by biology Professor Sarah Henkel’s skillful teaching on marine algae and her infectious enthusiasm for the subject. “We were on Zoom for 7-10 hours a day and Dr. Henkel was so energetic and high-spirited that the class didn’t feel long at all and we were constantly engaged and learning.”

Casey is also enjoying his microbiology parasitology class this term taught by Professor Sascha Hallett. He has found the breadth of life science coursework at OSU invaluable. Having taken courses in zoology, biology, microbiology and fisheries and wildlife science, Casey has gained insight into the interconnectedness of different STEM fields, knowledge that he believes will shape his future career plans.

“There are many more possibilities than what I originally thought I wanted to do. My classes have made me realize that the ocean is a humongous environment and there are so many things to study and opportunities to get involved in research,” he enthused.

“It's very nice and affirming to be able to go to these cultural centers, be around people who understand you on a different level and be welcomed with open arms."

While Casey has had a fulfilling career at OSU, he admits the path has not been an easy one. He found the transition from high school to college difficult and found himself not quite ready for “the intensity and expectations of college.”

Like many motivated undergraduates, Casey took advantage of academic support resources such as the tutoring centers in the College of Science. The centers provide academic support for science, mathematics and statistics, with some of them offering tutoring resources to approximately 2,000 students each month.

The highly sought-after chemistry tutoring center, called the Mole Hole, was one of Casey’s favorite places to learn, discuss and connect with a community of students with similar struggles. “The tutoring centers helped me find better ways to study and succeed,” Casey said.

His advice to new and future undergrads is to avoid procrastination and doing things at the last minute. “I notice that if I invest time and energy beforehand I can avoid obstacles in the long run,” he said. Casey shares that it is possible to overcome hurdles by not waiting too long and by proactively seeking help.

“The one thing I really appreciated from talking with my advisor Brock McLeod was that there were resources on campus to help me with whatever I was struggling with. You are not in this alone. Lots of students think it is all on them and they have to do it all on their own. There are lots of resources at OSU that can help you stay on track.”