The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded the University of Oklahoma (OU) an expected $2 million over 5 years to develop a program to improve representation of Oklahoma Native American students in biomedical and cancer research.
“American Indian professionals are underrepresented in scientific fields, particularly those in biomedical research, and near-absent in cancer research,” said the project’s Director, Cecil M. Lewis, Jr, PhD. “This discrepancy impacts community health; there is a substantial health disparity in cancer impacting American Indians, particularly cancer types where regular screening, early detection, and access to health care have a large impact. A more robust health-care workforce and infrastructure, one with strong ties to communities, should reduce these rates.”
Dr. Lewis is Professor of Anthropology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences at OU. The project’s Co-Directors are Cara Monroe, PhD, research scientist for OU’s Center for the Ethics of Indigenous Genomics Research; Rajagopal Ramesh, PhD, Professor of Pathology in the OU College of Medicine and Associate Director for Education and Training at the OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center; and Kent Smith, PhD, who is of Comanche/Chickasaw ancestry and Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences (OSU-CHS) and Associate Dean for the Office of American Indians in Medicine and Science, which serves both the OSU-CHS Tulsa campus and the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation.
Teachers and Students Working Together
Dr. Lewis said the program will provide a research training strategy in which Native American high school students will engage in hands-on scientific research, with a strong emphasis in cancer research. Two different cohort groups, one of students and one of Oklahoma teachers, will support community building and sustainability of the student training pipeline.
YES Oklahoma Scholars, eligible high school juniors and seniors, will have the opportunity to participate in an intensive summer research experience and earn college credit. YES Oklahoma Teachers, middle and high school teachers from partner schools across the state, will participate in a summer training event. Students enrolled in these teachers’ classes, a third beneficiary group called YES Oklahoma Trainees, also benefit from the teachers’ participation by taking part in the curriculum.
This project’s grant proposal received letters of support by the Tribal President of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, the Kiowa Tribe Higher Education Program, and the Chairman of the Comanche Nation, as well as superintendents representing partnering schools in Oklahoma and more than 20 Oklahoma faculty mentors in biomedical related sciences. The YES Oklahoma proposal received a perfect review score, referred to as an “Impact 10,” by the NIH review panel, a rare triumph for grant proposals and strong demonstration of the potential impact of partnership between Oklahoma institutes and tribal partners.