Alaska is awash in minority populations, from rural students who have a markedly different education experience than their city-dwelling peers to the Alaska Native population. Proportionally, very few of those minorities end up in the biomedical fields, researchers report, and that's a problem, especially in places so dramatically impacted by changes such as climate change.
But campuses around the state hope to change that thanks in part to a $23.8 million, five-year award from the National Institutes of Health, which has launched an effort to improve undergraduate programs for biomedical research students with diverse backgrounds.
Biomedical fields span all medical research realms, including veterinary medical research. Statistically, there are a disproportionately low number of minorities across America in these fields, which the National Institutes of Health said has been linked to the lack of opportunity to participate in real research work at an undergraduate level.
With this funding, undergraduate research programs and opportunities will be enhanced throughout Alaska. The money will go to programs at University of Alaska Fairbanks as well as nine rural Alaska campuses through partnerships with the Ilisagvik College in Barrow and UA campuses and centers in Southeast Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and Western Alaska.
Barbara Taylor, an associate professor of neurobiology, is one of three UAF researchers to lead the project.
Taylor, who directs UAF's Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity, said Biomedical Learning and Student Training, or BLaST, will enhance what the university already does well. A researcher who recently showcased his work at the university talked about how much input he gets from the local people of Barrow when researching sea ice in the region.
"We're not inventing a connection," she said. "We're just trying to shine a light on one that has always been there and has always been essential."
Taylor said it is vitally important for students in Alaska to consider biomedical fields since they already have a unique understanding of their unique regions and those who live there.
"If we get young people invested in research and embedded in their home communities, then the research is going to be influenced and directed by what the people want," said Taylor. "I think it's important for all of us as a population to have a better handle on what research is and how we can be a part of it. Research isn't something that should be left to the academics."
Program directors say they will use the funds to redefine the classroom experience for all undergraduate students interested in pursuing human, animal and environmental health. Faculty in related fields will incorporate research experience as a teaching tool, allowing students to actively participate in the research.
Taylor said students in rural Alaska have a lot to offer the research world but often need support to reach their goals. Many are first-generation college students; some come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and attended smaller schools with fewer subject options and high teacher turnover.
"That's our target population," she said. "Our mission is to create a gateway to enter the biomedical fields if that's their choice. It's about nurturing and engaging and supporting them throughout their undergraduate experience so they can be positioned to go on."
In Alaska, focusing on what is called a tiered mentoring program will connect undergraduate students with students closer to their age to help them become comfortable in the research environment.
Taylor said the funds will allow a greater emphasis on research at the university's rural campuses, something that is already supported by the university.
In a recent press conference announcing the initiative, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said the program's five-year commitment is only the beginning of the effort to improve diversity in research worlds.
"This program will test new models of training and mentoring so that we can ultimately attract the best minds from all groups to biomedical research," Collins said.
Arleigh Reynolds, associate dean of UAF's Department of Veterinary Medicine, said BLaST students' unique blend of cultural and scientific knowledge will become a valuable asset.
"There are some really pressing public health and biomedical questions, like climate change, that are facing rural Alaska, and they're going to have huge impacts on the way that the culture, economics and lifestyles of people there are going to change," he said. "Students from BLaST will be the best advisers for those communities and can help people make really important decisions about how their life is going to change."
Karsten Hueffer, an associate professor of veterinary microbiology, said BLaST students can prepare for a variety of careers ranging from lab technician to public health worker to biomedical researcher. It all depends on what they want to do and the needs of the communities where they live.
"It's important to look at the student and ask where the student wants to be and how the student can get to that point," he said noting that BLaST is not a one-size-fits-all program. "We see it as a pipeline with multiple entry points and multiple exit points."
BLaST will offer student scholarships, professional development workshops, public seminars and funds to improve biomedical facilities at partner institutions. It will complement other NIH-funded programs at UAF, like the Center for Alaska Native Health Research and the Institutional Development Award Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, which recently received an $18.8 million renewal in August.
All three leads on the BLaST team stressed that it will take many faculty members, graduate students, research institutions and campus partners across Alaska to ensure the project's success.
Collaborators include Ilisagvik College in Barrow, University of Alaska Southeast (campuses in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka) and the UAF College of Rural and Community Development (Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham, Chukchi Campus in Kotzebue, Interior-Aleutians Campus in Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel and Northwest Campus in Nome and the UAF Community and Technical College).
UAS Chancellor John Pugh said the grant sets the bar high in terms of what it sets out to accomplish. "My initial reaction was to be a bit overwhelmed by the success of this proposal," he said "The Alaska BLaST proposal is very ambitious in its goals and gives us the opportunity to transform science education in Alaska."
This story originally appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and has been republished with permission.