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Spotlight on Summer Research Opportunity

Summer Research Opportunity is a sponsored summer research and learning opportunity for medical students who just finished year 1 and rising year-2 students. Sponsors lead the opportunities and are responsible for determining the hours (30-40 per week), timeframe (between 4-8 weeks), reimbursement, and what students will research, learn, or do.

This summer, Native American Health Sciences sponsored three students for four weeks. Although students are provided a small stipend, much of their time is voluntary.

The SRO NAHS curriculum was based on work being done on a first-ever interprofessional indigenous healing curriculum and certification. Weekly, students were exposed to:

  • The unique health educational pathways for NA students and foundation for why they are necessary, how they are developed and work, etc.
  • The history of pre- and post-colonial contact, including pandemics and health disparities, epigenetics, and current health trends in Indian Country.
  • Federal Indian policies, acts, laws, jurisdictional info, etc. as it pertains to forced removal, assimilation, cultural erasure, education, health, identity, and much more that affects health and provider awareness.
  • The concepts of tribal sovereignty, identity, what blood quantum and membership means and who initiated it, federal recognition, treaties, and ceded lands.
  • Tribal communities, governance, leadership, departments, youth, education, etc.
  • Health care in Indian Country, both IHS and 638 contract clinics or tribal health centers
  • The history of Western medicine and how it forced out traditional Native forms of medicine, current forms and views of healing.
  • Environment, climate, water, and history with the U.S. government, states, and companies interfering or causing health hazards in these areas and its current effects on many tribes, in particular, in the Pacific Northwest, to include WSU MOU tribes
  • Research in Indian Country

Students were assigned to read, review, and present literature in decolonizing ways and to review outcomes in frameworks that broke down historical, social, and cultural contexts within, or not mentioned in, referred journal articles or within media context. Students were also asked to tutor and mentor RISE students as they prepared to apply to medical school. Additionally, students provided input into the cultural tenets curriculum of the RISE program.

How did you learn about SRO NAHS and how did you know that you wanted to participate?

Athena: This was the first time I’d ever really come in contact with Native culture and Native studies, which is astounding considering I’ve finished my first year of medical school and I’ve lived in America my whole life. I needed this valuable experience way earlier and it’s not something you’re going to find in a traditional classroom. It was basically a study abroad program from our bedrooms into Native culture and working with these populations.

Take us through your journey to becoming a doctor and how that aligned with this summer research opportunity?

Josiah: I was actually born and raised in Kenya and then moved to the United States in 2013. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of access to health care due to cost and accessibility. My family relied on a lot of home remedies and they weren’t really effective. When I was 13, I got really sick and fainted at school and had to be rushed to the hospital. I ended up having typhoid and my family couldn’t afford to pay for the bill. The doctor taking care of me was the one who decided to cover all the costs and I just remember thinking that I want to be someone like him, who can offer that kind of service to other people. That got me geared toward a career in health care.

As I was exploring summer opportunities, it occurred to me that I knew some Native American history, but I did not know a lot about their culture. Much like my family’s culture is relevant to the care we received, I hoped the program could help me to see how culture influences these patients.

Athena: I dabbled in a lot of other fields, including law, but I was continually struck by the purity of the medical mission. At the end of the day, you’re helping people come to terms with diseases and impossible conditions and you can make incredible changes over a short period of time for these people. When I saw this SRO opportunity come up, I was really inspired in thinking about interacting with these populations and more proactively participating in whether they have a positive experience with health care.

What stood out to you in terms of how your future care could be improved, given Native American culture or beliefs?

Josiah: A great example is in how different cultures perceive time. In Native American cultures, they prefer to use stories as metaphors to explain things, including for illness. In terms of how I interact with a Native American patient, they may need more time to share their stories and I need to know that this is how they may describe their symptoms and transmission to me. Now I have a deeper understanding of this cultural way that people may use to communicate.

Can you talk more about decolonization and how this SRO addresses it?

Christian: Decolonization is a process where you apply a critical lens to more closely examine what Western society has taught us with history books and closely analyzing those concepts and information. Acknowledging that there are numerous different cultural lenses and really seeing history from another individual’s perspective. And I think that really fits with medicine and trying to empathize with those who you serve. How can you best serve somebody if you don’t really know where they’re coming from?

After this SRO experience, what is your commitment moving forward?

Christian: This program has given me so many outlets and access to types of possible mentors. Dr. James and I have been able to still communicate with one another. And he continues to still give me great clinical pearls. This has also given me a chance to work with some of the Native Hawaiian and other Polynesian communities in the region and I want to continue that.

Josiah: There is absolutely more learning that I need to do in order to be able to effectively serve our communities. One of my biggest takeaways was, in order to properly work with any community, you need trust and to be trusted, you have to spend time in that community.

For people reading this, who are considering investing in this SRO opportunity, why would it be a wise investment for them?

Athena: We need more med students exposed to these populations in America – it’s the difference between patients trusting their providers and having good outcomes or your patients mistrusting providers, getting mixed messages, and getting scared and lost in our health care system.

Josiah: Investment in this program is a good thing because the learning students do is more than what we get with a normal curriculum. You get to learn how to work with a community that’s been historically underserved. And you get to learn more about yourself and the people that you’re working with.

Christian: I think it’s a remarkable investment. Especially as you look at our interactions with this summer’s Reimagine IndianS into MedicinE (RISE) pathway program and helping Native participants who are planning to apply to medical school. With the disparities we learned at SRO, you have an entirely new appreciation for what these kids are coming through, you know, difficult circumstances. And we were able to provide a place for them to not only be motivated by each other, but their positive interactions with Native practitioners. It was as inspiring for them as it was inspiring for us.