Partnership looks to encourage Native students to pursue studies, careers in science and biomedical research

By Jennifer K. Loukissas, NIH Record


A partnership between veteran researchers and professors at Harvard Medical School and four Native American communities across the country has strengthened science and biomedical education in high schools attended by Native American students and is encouraging Native high school students to pursue undergraduate training in these fields at 4-year colleges. The program is funded by NIH.The Native American High School Summer Program at Harvard: Opening the Biomedical Pipeline for Native Communities arose from a suggestion by Wallace Youvella, vice chair of the Hopi, Arizona, school board, during a visit to Hopi Junior and Senior High School by a Harvard team in 2001. The long-term goal of the program is to increase the number of Native Americans entering medicine and biomedical research. The program exposes students to, and demystifies, the college environment. During the past five summers, teams of 10 high school students and two teachers came from four communities to Harvard to participate in 3-week long programs designed to improve students’ learning and analytical skills, increase their science knowledge base and refine their written and oral presentation skills.

Native American/Hawaiian students and their teachers attend a lecture by Prof. Edwin Furshpan at Harvard Medical School’s Medical Education Center as part of the Native American High School Summer Program.

Dr. Ernest J. Marquez, associate director for special populations and director of the NIMH Office for Special Populations, arranged funding through an NIH coalition. Marquez invited NIDA and NINDS to join NIMH in support of the program in summer 2004. During site visits to Harvard, Marquez remarked on the exceptionally high quality of research experiences offered to the students and to the mentoring and learning environment provided.

Neurobiology research professors Drs. Edwin Furshpan and David Potter cohost the program at Harvard. From the beginning, the content and format of the program and the choice of students and teachers have been controlled by the participating Native communities. Their core goal has been to increase the number of students from their communities who go on to complete undergraduate and graduate studies at leading institutions. The academic program resembles an informal freshman seminar, following a case-based format, with daily lectures and tutorials.

The initial success of the program with a Hopi team in the summer of 2001 led to requests to participate from the Fort Peck Assiniboine/Sioux Tribe in Montana, starting in summer 2002, and from a Native Hawaiian group and the Wampanoag Tribe (Aquinnah and Mashpee) on Cape Cod in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, 38 students and 8 teachers from the four communities took part. Vicky Takamini, the principal organizer in Hawaii, introduced an intensive pre-program week in Hawaii focused on Native Hawaiian history and culture, to bond the team of students who had been drawn from public and private high schools on four islands.

Hopi High School and Native Hawaiian students participating in the program collaborate to solve a medical case in a tutorial facilitated by Prof. David Potter.

At the request of the Native communities, during the summers of 2004 and 2005, the academic subject was substance abuse, with emphasis on alcohol and methamphetamine. In summer 2005, psychosocial aspects of substance abuse were added to the basic science of the brain and the actions of abused substances via the brain’s “reward system.”

The Native communities have generally chosen new students each year. A student from Fort Peck, who attended the program for three summers after her freshman year in high school, is now a freshman at Stanford. A second student from Fort Peck has begun her sophomore year at Harvard. Program participants who have graduated from Hopi Jr./Sr. High School currently attend the University of Arizona (9), Arizona State (4), Northern Arizona University (5), Central Arizona College (2), Fort Lewis College (2) and Dartmouth (1). Among these Hopi students who have already declared a professional interest are: pre-meds (6), nursing students (5) and engineering students (2).

As a major part of the close-out activities, the students wrote and produced plays about the impact of substance abuse on their home communities, for presentation at home. At the students’ insistence, staff and teachers were excluded from the writing and production of the plays, so that the performances represented the students’ unedited voices. After the play, each group led a discussion of the performance. The plays and discussions proved to be strikingly sharp and moving.

“Education is at its best when people are directly involved and active in their learning,” said Furshpan. “By undertaking thiswhole enterprise entirely by themselves, the kids internalized the lessons and were able to give them back. They talked about the effect of alcoholism and substance abuse in their communities and demonstrated a very secure understanding of the consequences of alcohol and substance abuse.”

The Harvard and Native participants are now discussing extension of the programs into the academic year through broadband technology. The Indian Health Service has offered to provide broadband links that can support two-way videoconferencing between two of the reservations (Hopi and Fort Peck) and Harvard, over existing lines via the IHS clinics. “These links can extend the scope of the summer programs to include year-round activities and create an on-going virtual community,” said Furshpan.

In summer 2005, the program was supported by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Center for Research Resources and contributions from the original three NIH institutes as well as NIGMS and NIAAA.

“The program expands expectations and opportunities of talented Native American students. Already, the program has demonstrated results. College acceptance rates from the first two sessions are promising and many of the students participated in Harvard summer school as well. One girl from Fort Peck was accepted for undergraduate studies at Harvard and last fall began her sophomore year. Furshpan said: “She’s thriving!”


This article originally appeared in the NIH Record — a biweekly newsletter published by the National Institutes of Health/ Department of Health and Human Services.