$1.3M Grant to Increase Pipeline of Navajos in Neuroscience

A collaborative partnership between the University of Arizona and Diné College, the first Tribal college in the country, aims to attract more Navajo students into biomedical sciences.

“We have a dire need for more neuroscientists on the Navajo Nation. This will increase the amount of Navajo neuroscientists in the coming years,” Diné College President Charles Monty Roessel said. “We’re excited.” Click To Tweet

Diné College, located on the Navajo Nation and predominately serving Navajo students, recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary. The college is a four-year institution offering eight bachelor’s degrees.

The schools recently were awarded a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a training program for Navajo students to further their studies in neuroscience, in addition to increasing the number of Native Americans in graduate schools and research careers. Native Americans currently account for just 0.5 percent of the workforce in biomedical sciences — the lowest of any minority group. Recognizing that Native students may introduce new perspectives to health disparities, they will work with Navajo elders while learning science research methods.

The Undergraduate Readying for Burgeoning Research for American Indian Neuroscientists (URBRAIN) is the name of the collaborative partnership.  It’s the first time ever that such a partnership has existed between Diné College and University of Arizona neuroscientists. What sets this program apart from other research opportunities for Diné College students is that it is a year-round program, not just a separate summer experience. 

“This is a project that specifically benefits Navajo students at Diné College,” Fred Boyd, Ph.D, an anatomy, physiology and biology instructor at Diné College, said. Boyd is the Diné College point person for the partnership. “It’s open to all Diné students, not simply traditional science students. The benefits to participating scholars are financial, intellectual and motivational with the scholar’s development being guided by a professional scientist mentor employed by the program.” 

The partnership is patterned after a similar one at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. There, the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) partners with a handful of Tribal colleges, including Diné College, in an initiative called BLAST — Biomedical Learning and Student Training. 

In explaining Undergraduate Readying for Burgeoning Research for American Indian Neuroscientists’s Diné College impact, Boyd said three Diné College students will be selected each year over the next five years to study the brain and neuroscience. The program utilizes Tribal elders and singers to guide the cultural appropriateness of the research.  

Boyd said some of the things students will experience include mentoring with respect to applying to graduate school, research methods, safety, technical classes and academic progress checks at Diné College, networking with University of Arizona scientists and students and orientation to the University of Arizona and two months of scientific research in Tucson each summer. The selection of student scholars is based on academic qualifications, vocational goals and mentor recommendations. 

“The research programs available to our students cover a wide range from basic science to human medical pathologies,” Boyd said. “This is the first collaboration between Diné College’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program and the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona.”  

Undergraduate Readying for Burgeoning Research for American Indian Neuroscientists recognizes that Native American students may approach the world — and the means to investigate it — from fundamentally different perspectives. In contrast to Western modes of thinking, Native American perspectives often are more holistic and narrative-based. 

“By integrating the holistic perspective of the Navajo culture with the scientific problem-based approach of neuroscience, we will open new opportunities for Navajo students to pursue research relevant to their communities,” Kathleen Rodgers, associate director of translational neuroscience at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center for Innovation in Brain Science, said.