An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Montana State University, in collaboration with three tribal colleges in the state, has received a National Institutes of Health grant to help attract and retain underrepresented populations to future bioscience careers.
Jamie Cornish, outreach specialist in Academic Technology and Outreach and lead principal investigator on the grant, received the five-year, $1.1 million Science Education Partnership Award from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences in August to support the project My Home, My Health: Place-Based Public Health Resources for Rural Educators.
Project partners will include Salish Kootenai College, Blackfeet Community College and Chief Dull Knife College and the NIGMS Montana IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, or INBRE, as they build a model for how INBRE networks can train their researchers to reach underserved middle school-aged youth.
To reach this demographic, MSU and INBRE researchers at the tribal colleges will create kits containing regionally and culturally relevant hands-on activities focusing on the topic of disease ecology. Disease ecology is the interaction of the behavior and ecology of hosts with the biology of pathogens related to the impact of diseases on populations.
According to Cornish, disease ecology is a broad topic, and the team intends to cover it in its widest sense: how people interact with their environments, how their environments interact with them and how that interconnectedness can affect the health of individuals and their communities.
“It’s very exciting to receive this SEPA award, and it’s painfully obvious how important disease ecology is today,” Cornish said. “A key component of this project is to inspire youth to want to be interested in biosciences research that is relevant to their communities so they can solve problems in the future.”
Student researchers from MSU and the tribal colleges who are working on disease ecology-related research – like West Nile virus, sustainable food systems and more – will be recruited to help create the framework for the kits. The researchers will be trained how to present their findings to a younger audience, and they’ll meet monthly to discuss what programming will go in the kits and what topics are most important for their communities.
Cornish said the team will develop two kits with five-to-eight activities each. The first will be in a format meant for informal learning spaces, such as afterschool programs, community science nights and summer camps. The information will be designed to be communicated easily in a short amount of time. The second format will contain the same information, but it is meant for classroom spaces where students and educators can discuss the topics in depth.
The kits will be tested in tribal communities and compared against other learning activities to see their effectiveness. Once the kits have been approved, Cornish said, the team will train informal educators across the state on how to incorporate the activities into learning spaces. She added that after the five years of the grant, the team projects it will work with approximately 30 college students, 2,260 students and 50 educators across the state.
“I'm excited for the possibilities of the large-scale impact this could have,” said Becky Hammack, a principal investigator on the grant and assistant professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Development. “When you’re talking about providing these resources for teachers and how many students they will touch with the curriculum, it’s a domino effect. This will show kids they can impact their community, their community can impact them and it can be a health benefit in the meantime.”
Hammack, a former middle school teacher, said this age range is important because middle school children are still willing to learn new things. It is a critical time of life to open their minds to careers in STEM. Hammack added introducing those topics in an engaging way and through real-life local examples will help solidify the importance of science and keep students thinking.
Along with Cornish and Hammack, Selena Ahmed and Robert Peterson at MSU are principal investigators on the grant. Ahmed is an associate professor of sustainable food systems in the College of Education, Health and Human Development. She leads the Food and Health Lab and is the director of the Translational Biomarkers Core, a lab operated by the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity that provides state-of-the-art services to assess a wide range of biomarkers related to public health research, including markers for inflammation, oxidative stress, hormones, psychological stress and more. Peterson is a professor of entomology in the colleges of agriculture and letters and science. He leads the research, teaching and outreach program in Agricultural and Biological Risk Assessment.
Kim Paul, director of The Piikani Lodge Institute in Browning, is also a principal investigator. The institute is devoted to community needs-based biomedical and preventative health research and implementation within American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian populations.
Cornish said the interdisciplinary scope of the team is valuable for a project like this, given the interdisciplinary nature of disease ecology. Each investigator can offer a new perspective to the project and cover more ground, translating into more effective implementation. She said an advisory board comprised of community members and key stakeholders will be created as well.
“Having scientists working hand-in-hand with educators and thinking about how to convey research topics in a really accessible, manageable format is vital to this project,” Cornish said. “There’s often that gulf between a published research paper that few people outside the science community read and understand versus really getting into the community and having that feedback. We want to have that dialogue and don’t want it to be ‘we know science and we are going to convey it to you as is.’”
The team hopes to begin its work on the kits and meeting with student researchers in the spring. Alongside the goal of having the kits implemented in tribal and other state communities, Cornish said the team wants the kits to be available to other INBRE networks in other states in hopes of getting kids nationally interested in bioscience and STEM careers.