STILLWATER – Oklahoma State University alumna and Cherokee Nation citizen Dr. Cara Cowan Watts will be recognized Saturday with the Ely S. Parker Award, the highest honor awarded by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Watts will receive the award during the American Indian Science and Engineering Society national conference – which is being held virtually – for her contributions and achievements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I believe our tribal nations and Oklahoma both win when STEM careers and degrees are valued and embraced by more people rather than fewer,” she said.
Cowan Watts has followed her own advice. The three-time OSU graduate earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1997, a master’s degree in telecommunications management in 2002, and a doctorate in biosystems engineering in 2015.
In 2001, she and her brother, Brett, established a scholarship fund for Native American engineering students in their parents’ honor. The Beverly and Clarence “Curly” Cowan Endowed Scholarship Fund is available to any Native American student from Seminole High School, Rogers County or Sequoyah County who majors in engineering at OSU.
“Our parents were and always will be teachers,” Cowan said. “They encouraged us to go to college, pushed us to succeed, and most importantly, provided us opportunities to succeed. There is no doubt that they are the foundation for our success; they put us in position to get to where we are today.”
The siblings are both graduates of the Bridge to Doctorate program, which is designed to enhance the number of underrepresented groups earning advanced degrees. The program is an initiative of the Oklahoma Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a national program created to encourage undergraduates to pursue degrees in STEM disciplines.
Brenda Morales, director of OK-LSAMP program at OSU, congratulated Cowan Watts for winning the Ely S. Parker Award.
“Thank you for being an amazing STEM advocate and representative to your community,” Morales said. “You are very deserving of this award for all you have done and continue to do.”
As an OSU student, Cowan Watts was involved with the university chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Native American Student Association, which gave her real-world experience in leadership and managing people.
“My OSU engineering degrees assure that I have the ability to bring critical thinking, process improvement, project management, technical writing, in addition to a strong science and math foundation for any job I tackle,” she said.
As a professional, Cowan Watts – CEO and principal owner of Tulsa Pier Drilling – continues to give back to the next generation of STEM professionals.
She worked with Dr. Jason F. Kirksey, vice president for Institutional Diversity and chief diversity officer at OSU, and Dr. Jovette Dew, recently named director of OSU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, to negotiate with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to change the National American Indian Science and Engineering Fair from a virtual event based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to a physical event in Stillwater.
“Dr. Cara Cowan Watts was instrumental in OSU hosting the National American Indian Science and Engineering Fair, which brought about 50 elementary and secondary school students from as far away as California to OSU for the two-day event in 2019,” Kirksey said.
The coronavirus forced the 2020 event to take place virtually, but Cowan Watts is hopeful the 2021 fair will take place in-person.
“The NAISEF is an opportunity for our Native students from all over Indian Country, including urban centers, to learn not just the scientific method, but how to research, document, develop an idea to completion, present their work to professionals as well as their peers, and learn how to interact with others when their ideas are challenged,” Cowan Watts said. “The world needs more vigor and NAISEF provides a safe environment for our Native youth in fifth grade through 12th grade to learn and compete for cash prizes, trips to the International Science Fair and more.
“NAISEF is an incredible event that attracts world-class professionals who are invested in our youth and know it is best to start recruiting early. This includes government agencies such as the USDA and CIA as well as small business owners such as myself or folks from oil and gas, technology and more. At one point, NAISEF had over 400 students participating. We hope to return it to that number or greater.”