Montana State University

MSU chemical engineering student chooses different path

December 4, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


MSU chemical engineering student Katie Hoyt spent last summer in Washington D.C. on a Morris K. Udall Native American Congressional Internship. A member of the Tlingit Tribe of Alaska, Hoyt hopes to use her background in science and engineering to work on environmental problems. In the background are two of Hoyt's mentors, engineering professor Sarah Codd (right) and Sheree Watson, director of the Designing Our Community Program for Native American students at MSU. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)    High-Res Available

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When Katie Hoyt graduates in chemical engineering in December she'll be holding a degree that commands the highest entry-level salary of any academic program. On average, chemical engineers make $59,218 right out of school, according to national data.

But you won't find Hoyt buying a new car, or a wide-screen plasma TV, or a high-end home espresso machine. This Montana State University graduate is headed to El Salvador to teach English.

"El Salvador has begun a lot of social change. This is a chance to contribute a bit," said Hoyt, 22, who also sees the trip as a chance to spend time with her brother, who will also be teaching.

It's just one of many surprises about Hoyt, one of the few female Native American students in MSU's College of Engineering.

Petite in stature, soft spoken and seemingly ever-cheerful and friendly, Hoyt has been described as a "sweetheart," by her professor-mentor Sarah Codd. But there's plenty of iron in this young woman from Bellingham, Wash.

"I have a sort of damn-the-man attitude," Hoyt said. "I'd like to work for more humanitarian causes than for corporations."

She is a member of the Tlingit Tribe of Alaska and wears a silver bracelet on her left wrist from her tribal clan. Born of a mother with European ancestry and a Tlingit father, Hoyt grew up with a strong bond to her Native American roots and plans to eventually settle near her family or tribe.

"My family has worked very hard to keep my brother and me aware of our heritage," Hoyt said. "If I were a non-native, I would not be as interested in staying close to home or near Alaska, but because of my heritage, I'm invested in those things. They're very meaningful to me."

Hoyt is concerned about issues facing Native Americans. This past summer, she was one of only 11 students nationwide to win a Morris K. Udall Native American Congressional Internship to Washington D.C., where she worked as an intern for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

As a Udall intern, Hoyt had a chance to meet leaders in the National Congress of American Indians, the Indian Health Service, and other organizations that play a crucial role in the lives of Native Americans.

"I realized I'd fit better on the lobbyist side than as a staffer," Hoyt said. "I'm more of an advocate."

With her chemical engineering background, Hoyt hopes to advocate for the tribes of Alaska and the Northwest coast, possibly with a graduate degree in public health, law or policy.

"Even though I'm not thinking about a graduate degree purely in engineering, I really enjoy the advantages that an engineering background provides," she said. "With my science background, I'd like to work on the environmental health disparities that tribes deal with."

Hoyt came to MSU after visiting the campus during Sweet Pea, a community arts festival in early August.

"I just thought this was the most beautiful place," she said. "Everyone said Bozeman was a great place for skiing and trail running too -- things I love."

As an undergraduate, Hoyt caught the eye of engineering professor Codd, who helped mentor her as a research assistant.

"When I first saw Katie's bright, alert and inquiring face in my freshman class, I knew she would be someone who not only made the most of her educational experience, but also someone who gave the most to others," Codd said. "As you can tell, she has proven me right."

With funding from the MSU Idea Network for Biomedical Research Excellence, Hoyt worked on a project to tag microscopic biofilms -- slimy, disease-causing colonies of bacteria -- with compounds that would make the biofilms easy to see with an imaging technology.

"Lab work is very distinct from classroom work and a great experience," Hoyt said. "It was great to be working with people who are trying to find out things we didn't know. Those research experiences make a graduate degree feel more in reach."

Hoyt was also heavily involved with the Engineering Minority Program (EMPower) and the Designing Our Community Program for Native American students.

"Katie was one of the first Native students I worked with in the DOC program. She was very anxious to meet and work with other Native students in the college," said Sheree Watson, director of the DOC program. "She is a natural mentor and collaborator, she gets people. She gives a lot of her time helping new Native students, which makes my job a lot easier. I will miss her advice. She has been a great help to me in meeting the goals of our program."

The feeling was mutual.

"A big part of what made my time here great were mentors like Sarah and Sheree," Hoyt said. "They were often telling me 'You can do it Katie!' or 'Good job!'"

"It really helped to hear that," she said.

Contact: Sarah Codd, (406) 994-1944 or scodd@coe.montana.edu; Sheree Watson, (406) 994-6723 or swatson@coe.montana.edu; Katie Hoyt, kathryn.hoyt@myportal.montana.edu