(Missoula Current) A chemistry professor at the University of Montana helped land a $2.5 million grant to increase the number of underrepresented students who enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Professor Aaron Thomas received the grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, making UM one of six universities nationally to receive the award – and the only school in Montana.

“UM has a number of people, programs and initiatives to support our Native American students in STEM, but more needs to be done,” Thomas said in a statement. “This new HHMI support will help us focus on student activities and programming across the institution that will help move UM to the next level.”

A member of the Navajo Nation, Thomas directs the university's Indigenous Research and STEM Education program. In his own research, he studies mechanical separation of gases and biological species.

In awarding the grant, HMMI said the initial round of funding was “awarded to finalists who made strong arguments for their readiness to embark on a change journey with experiments that held the best promise for helping the whole community.”

Thomas said the funding will help UM become a national model for preparing, supporting and learning from its Native students, faculty and staff. It will also help the university incorporate Indigenous cultural knowledge and historical experiences into the curriculum.

Scott Whittenburg, the university's vice president for research and creative scholarship, described the award as a major achievement.

“It demonstrates a shared commitment from both the university and HHMI – the largest private, biomedical research institution in the nation – to support our STEM Native American students by broadening our instruction to include place-based knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing,” he said.

Thomas said the university will implement a number of activities focused on helping Native students succeed, including first-year programming in STEM, childcare opportunities and emergency funding.

While Black, Indigenous, Latino and other students of color initially select majors in science-related fields at the same rate as white students, statistics suggest that they graduate with bachelor degrees in a STEM field at half the rate of white and Asian students.

HHMI launched its Driving Change initiative in 2019 to help address this statistic.