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Native American Undergraduates Explore Careers in Biomedical Research

Misty Jackson smiles as she listens to a presentation during the first week of AIHEC Aseto’ne Summer Institute at UNMC. Jackson attends Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College. Courtesy image

The Summer Institute is the result of more than a decade of partnerships with Native communities

News Release

Francine Red Willow Richards just assumed that upon graduating with her associate’s degree in nursing next year she would work for the Indian Health Service hospital on her reservation.

However, after attending the Aseto’ne Summer Institute hosted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., Richards is now considering expanding on her education.

“I want to get an R.N. and then go into nursing research, maybe with the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in D.C. (Washington D.C.),” Richards said.

A student at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Richards was one of ten Native American undergraduate students from seven different tribal colleges who spent June 4-14 learning about the wide variety of biomedical research and health profession careers from faculty and staff at UNMC and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and staff from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC).

Along the way, they also learned a little something about themselves.

“I was nervous at first,” Richards said.

But after encountering the variety of researchers, health professionals and professors during the Aseto’ne Summer Institute, Richards said, “I feel motivated, more confident that I can do these things too.”

That confidence and motivation is exactly what organizers of the Aseto’ne Institute hoped they would cultivate among the students who attended.

After their visit with members of the Mayan Indigenous community living in Omaha, Neb., several undergraduate students stop for a photo. Pictured from left to right are: Shelly Nez, Alejandra Gonzalez, Lucia Franciso, Luis Marcos, Flor Lorenzo, Brittney Shirley and Adler Aspaas-Montoya. All four students attend Haskell Indian Nations University. Courtesy image

“These types of programs are great opportunities for our tribal college students to learn and be engaged,” said Darryl Monteau, Aseto’ne Network project coordinator with AIHEC.

“In visiting with the students they said they all learned something new and found the presentations and activities meaningful in helping them figure out what they wanted to do as a future career,” Monteau said.

She added that they even had a few students who are thinking about changing their majors and considering a career in public health and a few who are interested in health research.

The Summer Institute is part of the Aseto’ne Network Project, which is a multi-institutional initiative designed to expand health research outreach, education and mentoring services at the nation’s 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities.

The Summer Institute was a collaboration between the AIHEC and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Maurice Godfrey, Ph.D., a professor with the Munroe-Meyer Institute at UNMC and Carrie Billy, president and CEO of AIHEC, are co-principal investigators of the $400,000 one-year National Institutes of Health for Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training grant that funded the Institute.

“The Summer Institute is the result of more than a decade of partnerships with Native communities. In 2005, we began with a vision that did not go past middle school. Having these terrific tribal college students at UNMC has given us the opportunity to showcase our programs and the importance of research. It was personally rewarding to have those students on our campus. One hopes that some will return to UNMC to continue their education,” Dr. Godfrey said.

Summer Institute participant, Adler Aspaas-Montoya, Navajo, who attends Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., was particularly interested in the presentations on pediatric health issues, including autism, depression and sleep disorders.

A pre-med student at Haskell, Aspaas-Montoya, said he wants to become a pediatrician and return to New Mexico where he ultimately plans to open a private practice and serve his tribe.

“I also liked hearing about the work being done with urban Indians in the elementary schools in Omaha and on native foods being incorporated into a healthy diet,” he said.

The student also visited several community organizations during the Summer Institute, including:

  • A visit with leaders of the Mayan indigenous community in south Omaha;
  • A stop at the Urban Indian Health Coalition, where they learned about the need for research collaboration with the indigenous community; and
  • A day spent at the Henry Doorly Zoo, where they learned about the research being done around the conservation and discovery of new species.

Each participant also was assigned a faculty mentor from one of the participating tribal colleges, UNO or UNMC.

“It is such a pleasure working with our tribal college students and being able to provide this opportunity for them is one of the many things AIHEC does,” Monteau said. “We were so pleased with this year's program we are already looking forward to begin planning for next year.”

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