Matilda Brooks, Yurok Tribe, hopes to become the first Native American woman in space and along the way she wants to give the world an array of inexpensive, 3-D printed medical braces for treating injuries. But first she has to invent them. She learned to program 3-D printers during her 2015 NASA internship, and then negotiated with the agency to use their printers to prototype a knee brace for a teammate who’d been injured playing basketball in exchange for rights to her work. The brace will be modifiable and will utilize traditional knowledge about acupressure to aid healing.
Brooks is essentially pioneering a completely new field—there are no templates for 3-D printed medical braces and no tried-and-true techniques for how to make them. Once she perfects the first brace, “then it will be on to the next Native athlete. I’m starting with making high-impact athletic braces knowing that if they work for athletics you can use them [for other injuries] and they should work fine for elders,” she said.
“If I can do it right, the file would be something I could put online for the public and anybody who has access to a 3-D printer could print off a high-grade medical brace,” she said. NASA is interested in the project because it would be much more efficient to send printers and instructions for braces into space than to send the braces themselves.
Gary Brandt, one of Brooks’ teachers at Northwest Indian College, is confident she will meet her goals. “She works hard. She has a lot of attention to detail. She’s pretty dynamic in the things she does. She has a lot of personality, in a good way, to get things done,” he said.
So far, Brooks’ accomplishments have won her the NASA internship, as well as a Washington Space Grant, and made her one of the top 25 (out of 7,000) contestants in the “Hidden Figures” competition (based on the 2016 movie about little-known minority women scientists). Her 3,000-word essay led to an invitation to submit a video about her work and culture.
The braces project is proceeding while Brooks completes some courses at Northwest Indian College, where she just earned a bachelor’s in environmental sciences, in preparation for applying to do graduate work at Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford or Purdue.
Brooks, 28, graduated from Chemawa Indian Boarding School, earned a two-year degree in theater at Haskell Indian Nations University, transferred to Portland State for a year, then moved to Washington to go to NWIC. “I decided to go back to tribal schools; it was a little easier financially,” and it was an alcohol-free sobriety school, with zero tolerance for substance abuse and mandatory urine tests to be eligible for on-campus housing, she explained. But how this Native American student ended up in the STEM fields is another story altogether.
Brooks was becoming a well-known Native American actor in the Portland area when she began to wonder if her career choice—she’d just landed a national commercial for Google—was serving the best interests of American Indian kids—especially those in foster care.
“I was beginning to question whether I was doing more harm than good for our youth, if they see me and say that’s all we can aspire to be. So I found it easier to not claim to be Native American, just a minority, and that got me a little further. Now I’m back to being able to be an actor and say, yeah, and I’m Native American.”
Brooks’ interest in foster kids comes from her having been one and having experienced the worst aspects of the system—abuse, neglect, low expectations and disrespect. That’s how she got into acting in the first place.
After having been fostered by her grandfather’s brother from the ages of 3 to 11, the man she calls “dad” and credits with giving her confidence and direction died of leukemia. Brooks wound up in the foster care system in “the ghettoes of Portland” with a caseworker who “was calling me a lot of work for a case file. She told me that only 5 percent of foster kids even set foot in college when I was asking about scholarships. And I’m like, aren’t you in charge of molding my life here?”
“And that’s where I became angry,” Brooks said. “I had to take acting classes to learn how to verbalize my aggression without being over the edge emotionally because when you have my life situation you don’t have that luxury of having a breakdown.” The Portland-based band Quarterflash mentored her and helped with the practicalities—classes, headshots and advice on how the system works, she said.
Ten or so placements later, Brooks had learned way too much about what the foster care system can do to a child, and she shares that with kids who are in the system today through the Witness Our Future program at Northwest Indian College. “I tell kids there are limitations to what people should take from somebody. [When I was in foster care,] I didn’t know certain types of abuse weren’t the social norm,” she said.
“That’s what I do for kids. I hold their stories. It’s kind of my cultural passion to hold people’s stories, whether it’s sexual assault or just bad stories,” she said.
Once Brooks got to NWIC her life settled down and she discovered that the sciences were a big help in coping with the anxiety left over from her previous experiences. Focusing on a math problem, or figuring out how to get a rocket into space, focused her attention.
Her life is the example that shows Native kids in foster care what is possible. “My life is one big blur of a historical story that’s not even my own anymore. The more people in my community that are involved, the more my story means for all of us because of me maybe being able to go up to space,” she said. “It’s not going to be all glamour, one giant step for mankind, it’s going to be, ‘Hi, I’m one of those people you tried to eradicate via genocide, whassup?’”