Navajo Nation Students Awarded Rare Opportunity To Train In Neuroscience

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Native American students are among the least represented in science today because they face cultural and academic hurdles that keep them shut out of Western higher education. (Alastair Grant/AP)
Native American students are among the least represented in science today because they face cultural and academic hurdles that keep them shut out of Western higher education. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Native Americans are among the most underrepresented groups working in science today.

A new effort on the Navajo Nation in Arizona is trying to reverse that disparity.

The tribe's 4-year Diné College has teamed up with the University of Arizona to create a neuroscience training program, aimed at advancing Native American scholars in biomedical sciences and increasing their population in graduate schools and research careers. A $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund the endeavor.

The goal is to mentor 34 students over the next five years in laboratory and research skills.

University of Arizona's Kathy Rodgers hopes the program will empower students to bring what they’ve learned back to their community.

“Every one of the students in their applications talked about wanting to give back and being personally touched by a neurodegenerative disease within their family,” she says.

There’s no doubt going to be some challenges for the students who leave Navajo Nation for the program. According to a study by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, only 10% of Native Americans attain bachelor's degrees, while 17% attain associate degrees. Once they're in college, the students deal with a lot of barriers — such as a lack of support and understanding from the universities.

Rodgers says university staff participating in program the will be trained to meet the needs of the students and build trust with them.

Diné College provost Geraldine Garrity says students in the program are going to have to “learn how to balance the Navajo cultural and the Western perspective and try to integrate the two” while navigating the neuroscience field.

The program benefits both parties, says Fred Boyd of Diné College, who is leading the program with Rodgers. Scientists and researchers working with these students might learn and understand new things about Native Americans, he says, while students will get the opportunity to work beside top-tier researchers.

“I want to give our students the opportunity to realize their vision for themselves and so whether it's remaining on the Navajo Nation, whether it's going off to Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic to do a 40-year career in cutting-edge research, that's their vision that I want to enable,” he says. “If they're happy 10 years from now, [the program] will have been a success.”

Interview Highlights

On the academic and cultural challenges

Rodgers: “So from the U of A side, it is for us to understand the best way of training within the Native American culture. It's a matriarchal society where the parents are the ones that guide and love. But there's other members of the family that discipline so helping our faculty members to understand that you're really that parental figure. And you should have coordination around in your laboratory for any disciplinary actions knowing that there's a certain connection with nature and family that needs to be included in the education and part of our training, there's going to be a member of the Navajo Nation that's a faculty member at Diné that comes and spends two days with our mentors training us in how to meet these needs.”

On addressing barriers — such as students who don’t want to leave their families struggling on the reservation

Rodgers: “That's actually one of the biggest barriers. The students that would normally go to graduate school would be in large part responsible for the discipline and training of their younger siblings, and [if] their younger siblings get into trouble, then that can be a real detriment to them to have to make a decision: Do they continue their graduate education or go back and take care of their family responsibilities? So part of this is to bring in the elders and the families to see how we might solve those barriers.”

On training the program's staff

Rodgers: “I can tell you I spent about 10 of those years trampling on most Navajo traditions and had a good humored set of people help correct me in the proper way to interact with the Navajo. So I've made almost every mistake I can, and again part of the education we're going to have for the faculty here is I'm going to be speaking about the mistakes I've made and how we can solve that.”

On what this will mean for students

Rodgers: “I think by a further understanding, even if they do not end up working in the neurosciences, they will have a better understanding of how diseases occur, what therapies might be developed and that knowledge will be empowering to them as they go and talk to their family members and their community about it. Then the students were able actually to go back and say do research alongside a physician or each race has different reactions to different drugs and so being able to research that with people they trust. They have their trust more than we do that the tissues, etc. They're not as accessible to us that the students might be able to come up with solutions for their own people. And really that's the ultimate goal with these students. That is their place in the world is what they can get back to their community, and I think this will help them.”

On why so few students on the reservation have been able to get into neuroscience

Garrity: “I think one of the challenges is basically the cultural sensitivity portion of understanding where you stand as a Navajo person. It’s more looked at as taboo when it comes to surgical or in-depth research on a human brain or any type of the human body or anatomy. And I think that is a place of education for our institution to get the students to get involved in science. As long as they're mindful of these taboos, a lot of them [will be] able to talk with family members and practitioners. And I think that's one of the barriers for students just to understand what that is like in order for them to move forward with research.”

On embarking on this collaboration between the University of Arizona and Diné College

Body: “We're all going to be learning from each other. And one of the wonderful things about the Diné culture is this incredible connection that they have across many generations with the land and with the environment and other animals. So when we talk about taboo, these aren't misconceptions. The taboo are the Diné understanding of the right way to live in harmony with the rest of the world. You have some of a reductionist neuroscience and a neuroscientist in a lab in Tucson, and they're going to be able to learn things from our students [and] from our elders about things that maybe they haven't thought about. I'm tremendously excited to have that cross-fertilization. We're kicking off our program with the Blessingway ceremony here in a traditional hogan on the Navajo Nation. And we're all going to benefit from the blessing that a singer from the Navajo people are going to bless us with.”

Peter O'Dowd produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on September 19, 2019.

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Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



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