National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health
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Download Entire Issue (PDF): 1.5MB Spring 2007  •  Vol. XXXI, No. 2



  • Cover Story

Critical Connections

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Cover Story

Critical Connections

Collaborations among disparate research institutions enhance biomedical research and the nation’s health.
By Laura Bonetta

Little Big Horn College is a two-year community college settled on two acres in a wooded river valley at the heart of the Crow Indian Reservation in south central Montana—a vast, mountainous state with the third-lowest population density in the country. Despite the college’s isolated setting, scientists at Montana State University in Bozeman, 200 miles away, are mentoring some of its students on a research project to identify contaminants in the water of the Little Big Horn River that flows through the reservation.

This research effort, one of many across the country, is funded by NCRR’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which aims to increase the research capability of states with historically low success rates of obtaining NIH grants. “We knew that by just supporting peer-reviewed grants to research institutions we would not be effective,” says Fred Taylor, NCRR’s IDeA program director. “To effect change in a state and make it more competitive on a national level, we needed to reach out to undergraduate universities and other educational institutions and get the community involved.”

Through the IDeA program, NCRR supports institutions and communities in 23 states and Puerto Rico with grants that fund multiple areas of biomedical research and reach out to unique populations. Regardless of its actual area of biomedical inquiry, each grant fulfills five main goals to: build and strengthen the research capabilities at participating institutions by hiring staff and purchasing research equipment; support faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students; provide research opportunities for undergraduate students; develop outreach activities; and enhance the science and technology knowledge of the state’s workforce.

Engaging Tribal Colleges

Little Big Horn College is one of seven tribal colleges in Montana brought together under the IDeA program to collaborate on biomedical research projects with undergraduate and research universities across the state. In the southern portion of the state, along with Little Big Horn College, is Chief Dull Knife College, serving the Cheyenne Tribe. On the northern side are Blackfeet Community College (Blackfeet Tribe), Fort Belknap College (Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes), Fort Peck Community College (Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes), Salish Kootenai College (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes), and Stone Child College (Chippewa Cree Tribe). The colleges are each hundreds of miles away from Montana State University and the University of Montana in Missoula, the state’s two major research universities.

Biology teacher Mari Eggers (third from left) supervises students at Little Big Horn College performing research on water quality, one of the IDeA research projects bringing tribal colleges together with Montana universities. Shown in the photo from left to right are Pancho Monroy, Leslie Plain Feather, Mari Eggers, Francesca Pine, Brandon Good Luck, and Candy Felicia. (Photo by Lynn Donaldson)

Because of Montana’s large size, few opportunities existed for the faculty and students from different educational institutions to come together. Much of the credit for obtaining participation from tribal colleges goes to Sara Young, outreach coordinator for the Montana program and a member of the Crow Tribe. “It is really important to have someone who has credibility with the tribal colleges,” says Young, who had worked on Indian reservations for more than 30 years before joining Montana State University. Young understands the challenges facing Native American students who wish to pursue research careers. All but one of the seven Montana tribal institutions are two-year colleges, which means that to obtain a bachelor’s degree, students must leave the reservation. “Most students who live on reservations have very strong family ties,” says Young. “It is challenging for a student to move away and not be able to maintain these ties on a daily basis.”

Native American students attending a university in Montana often have to deal with feelings of isolation and, in some cases, misunderstanding from a predominantly white faculty and student body. “It is hard to be the only person of color in a class of 200 students,” says Young. But there are signs that the research environment, at least at Montana State University, is becoming more welcoming to tribal students. During the summer of 2006, four Native American students conducted research on the Montana State University campus, and all of them are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees in health-related fields.

The IDeA program is also helping to establish research projects within the tribal colleges, in subject areas uniquely relevant to the local communities. For the past several years, students at Little Big Horn College have been collecting river water and monitoring its quality. At the same time, researchers at Montana State University have been analyzing the water and fish tissue samples to identify environmental contaminants, such as mercury, pesticides, and pathogens. Students from the tribal college often visit Montana State University to learn these more sophisticated laboratory techniques and to carry out the analyses themselves.

“They were really interested in having students involved in basic water quality assessment,” says Montana State University professor and microbiology department head Timothy Ford, who directs the NCRR-funded program and serves as the primary mentor for the Little Big Horn College project. “That comes from a strong perception on Crow and other reservations that the water is contaminated and a source of disease.” The perception is based, in part, on Montana’s history of mineral and energy exploration and indiscriminate use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture, coupled with anecdotal reports of cancer clusters, stomach problems, and other ailments among those living on reservations.

To help prioritize these concerns in relation to contamination, an environmental health steering committee was formed on the Crow Indian Reservation made up of community members, utility managers, and tribal health representatives. “What we have done with Crow, we will begin to expand to other reservations,” says Ford. Already IDeA funding has been used to hire new faculty and to provide mini-grants to six tribal colleges in the state. The increase in faculty means that science instructors have some time to devote to research projects and to pursue further research training.

Other projects supported by the IDeA program in Montana include studies of microbes involved in human disease, such as Candida albicans and hantavirus, and those that threaten Montana’s abundant livestock and wildlife, such as the chronic wasting disease agent. For each project, the primary investigator is at one of four baccalaureate schools, and the primary mentor, an NIH-funded scientist, is at Montana State University or the University of Montana. One of the biggest payoffs so far, according to Ford, has been a “change in culture” at both the tribal colleges and the undergraduate institutions. “We talk to the deans and presidents, and they are ecstatic about the way undergraduates are exposed to research,” he says.