Westmont Magazine Bringing Tribal Communities Online
Morgan Vigil Hayes ’12 decided to attend Westmont after talking to professors Kim Kihlstrom and Wayne Iba in a chat room. “I fell in love with their vision for computer science as a way to serve others,” she says. During her doctoral studies at UC Santa Barbara and now as an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University (NAU), she has pursued projects that extend internet access to remote areas. She chose NAU because it values both teaching and research and seeks to serve first-generation and Native American students.
Raised by two educators, Morgan learned about the struggle of first-generation college students from her father, a first-generation student himself and the superintendent of Westpark School District in Fresno. Her mother, Stephanie Dean Vigil ’85, teaches at an alter- native high school in Merced. Morgan learned how integral computer science was to all the sciences—and how many scholarships were available—at a STEM camp at Caltech.
At Westmont, she worked with Iba on his project running genetic algorithms on multiple computers at one time. “It was a huge part of my Westmont experience,” she says. “Wayne introduced me to research and connected me to opportunities outside of the college. He made a big impact on my trajectory.” She also organized an after-school computer science program to help local high school students.
Her dissertation, “Community-based Networks for Challenged Environments,” describes Morgan’s graduate work using network analysis to design innovative wireless systems with the goal of getting more people online.
Today, as the director of the Community Aware Networks and Information Systems (CANIS) Lab at NAU, she seeks to overcome digital inequality in indigenous communities. She and her students work on two funded projects with grants from the Natural Science Foundation the National Institutes of Health.
Co-principal investigator of a $2 million NSF grant from the Smart and Connected Communities Program, Morgan works on “PuebloConnect: Expanding Internet Access and Content Relevance in Tribal Communities” with Elizabeth Belding, her adviser at UC Santa Barbara, and other researchers. Less than 15 percent of residents in rural tribal areas are connected to fixed or mobile broadband, so the team explores both innovative technologies to get people online and the creation of digital content about indigenous culture. The project involves providing internet access to four different pueblos north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, through a low-banded broadcast TV spectrum. The technology has to potential to offer wide coverage, and the team will deter- mine how well the platform performs.
“In theory, it should work really well,” Morgan says. “It could also translate really well in other contexts. Making it easier to create content is really important in tribal communities, which are not well represented in main- stream internet media. Content creation is a big focus of the architecture we’re building.”
With a $60,000 NIH grant through the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative Pilot Project Program, Morgan addresses behavioral health inequities in Native American communities. The project focuses on a mobile app that involves mobile gaming, augmented reality, edge computing and social and emotional learning for Native American youth and adolescents.
Morgan met her husband, Isaac Hayes ’11, on the Westmont track team; she competed in the pole vault her first year, and he ran as a sprinter for four years. An English major, he taught mathematics at Goleta Valley Junior High and Santa Ynez High School while she worked on her doctorate. When the couple moved to Flagstaff, he made a career switch and serves as the director of youth ministries at a church. “He is a renaissance man,” Morgan says. “The liberal arts are a great fit for him.”