Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan Medical Laboratory Scientist

Starr Zottola

My cousin, Starr Zottola (Koyukon Athabascan), is a medical laboratory scientist who  analyzes blood and other bodily fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. I asked her to share about her profession and what it took to get there. Starr’s parents are Gary Attla and Maureen Mayo. Enaa baasee’, Starr, for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

Starr’s Story:

I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree majoring in Medical Laboratory Science. I analyze blood and body fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. Anytime a person goes to the doctor and gets their blood drawn or has body fluid collected, it is sent to a laboratory to be tested. I am the person who analyzes it and provides information to the doctor to help diagnose what might be causing a patient illness.

I graduated from UAA in 2017 and the process was incredibly difficult. I am married with three children. We moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage in 2013, so it was a sacrifice for all of us. Attending university took time away from my family and I spent a lot of nights awake studying. Learning a technical subject was intense and there were times of self-doubt and wanting to quit.

Quitting would have been easy, but I’m glad I didn’t. I was determined to finish, because I was ready for the next part of my life to start. I learned a lot in school, but I also learned a lot about myself from working in the field. I learned self-confidence and self-acceptance, which wasn’t easy. What I have learned about self-confidence is that without it I do not trust myself or my decisions and it causes self-doubt, which causes confusion and errors. In my profession, there is no room for mistakes. There comes a time when I have to trust myself and my education and follow what I feel is right.

Unfortunately, mistakes do happen, because I’m a human and by nature mistakes will be made. That is where I learn self-acceptance, I have to accept the mistakes that I make and learn from them. It easy to be hard on myself for making an error and replaying it in my mind. But it is not good for a person to be that way to themselves. It is better for the soul to be accepting; being flawed is being human. I am not perfect and cannot hold myself to those standards or I will always let myself down. The most I can do is think about a better way to navigate the situation if it arises again.

My advice for anybody who has a goal is to be fierce and defend it. There will be non-believers, people who think they know more about you and your situation and do not think you can achieve your aim. Do not surround yourself with those people. Find support in people who believe in you. There will be stumbling and falling; reaching a goal is not easy. Just get up, brush yourself off and walk with your back straight and head held high. Don’t give up. I couldn’t give up. The thought of going through life and not finishing was too much too much of a burden. For anyone who has a goal, be brave and follow it and have faith in your intuition. Forget self-doubt, be passionate about what you’re learning and be ready to spend a lot of time on it.

I’m an indigenous woman of science and what I love about my profession is that I am able to help my community through healing. I work at Alaska Native Medical Center and I have probably released hundreds of medical results that have come to the lab. I feel good about that, but what is also important is that I represent the Native community in my profession. I want to be a role model for other Native people in the sciences.

Starr Zottola

I think science is awesome, because it supports ideas and helps people understand how things work. 

When I was a kid, in fish camp my Uncle Randy Mayo told me that Natives would suck on willow branches for pain relief. I took a chemistry class at UAF and learned that willows and aspirin have the same chemical compound. I thought that was the coolest thing and to this day I get excited about that story. I’ve also learned that science can explain a lot, but so can Elders. Who can argue with thousands of years of knowledge that is inherited through storytelling. History is important.

I love science, but I have recently gotten into photography. I am a beginner and I am having so much fun learning. I think I am driving my family crazy with all the pictures, but I do not care. I cannot wait until I am good at it. Someone told me the first year I will be taking crappy picture, so I am being patient with myself.

What an inspirational story of an Athascan woman in science. I’m proud of my cousin. Baasee’ Starr!