Once the groundwork is laid for students graduating high school in New Mexico, it’s not only up to universities to continue that work but to ensure their graduates stay working in the state. Representatives from the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center said that is their ultimate goal.

“Students are interested in cancer research usually because they have a personal story,” said Dr. Angela Wandinger-Ness from the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. “They had a family member or a loved one that they lost to cancer or suffered through cancer therapy. So they’re drawn to make a difference for other people, for other patients, sometimes they are just drawn to the fact that if we can have better therapies then people, in general, have a better life because cancer kills so many people.”

Whether it’s making life better, potentially saving lives, or even turning lives around through STEM fields of study, this is what’s drawn people like Dr. Naomi Lee to study at UNM and inspire other young Native Americans in the state.

“What our goal is, is to combine our traditional knowledge as indigenous persons with western STEM knowledge so they can see this connection between the two and hopefully motivate them at a young age to hopefully get involved in science,” said Dr. Naomi Lee from the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.

That’s just one method UNM is using to recruit students into STEM studies. While having students eventually study at the university is a huge goal, the bigger picture is to keep them working in New Mexico once they graduate. Right now, nearly 3,000 students are currently studying some form of engineering at UNM with many potentially taking on lab jobs at Sandia or Los Alamos, but a new trend is starting to emerge.

“Our efforts have been in the last few years to try to make sure that they have other opportunities including starting their own companies or moving into other areas that will use their background in STEM versus simply of working for a hardcore engineering firm,” said Dr. Chaouki Abdallah, Provost & Executive Vice-President of Academic Affairs at UNM.

From working in the labs to private practice, studies in STEM are proving to be a profitable career path. According to stats from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, three out of four of the highest paid occupations in  New Mexico are in STEM.

“Everything we do, everything we touch, everything that affects us these days has a STEM component from of course the gadgets that we use, the phones, but also a lot of the social interactions,” added Abdallah.

For researchers like Dr. Wandinger-Ness, she’s hoping the STEM-inspired curiosity continues for generations to come in students.

“They can see how it impacts patients, how does it impact training, how does it impact science, their ideas, they’re making discoveries that are brand new, no one has ever seen,” said Wandinger-Ness.