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Vol. LXVII, No. 6
March 13, 2015

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AI/AN Researchers Highlight Discoveries, Challenges at Forum
The forum featured several NIH-funded AI/AN researchers and a panel discussion about conducting biomedical research in AI/AN communities.
The forum featured several NIH-funded AI/AN researchers and a panel discussion about conducting biomedical research in AI/AN communities.

Addressing the need for culturally appropriate health research within American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities recently held a research forum to provide an opportunity for researchers to highlight their studies and share challenges in conducting biomedical research both inside and outside AI/AN communities. Held at NIH, the forum featured presentations by several prominent NIH-funded AI/AN researchers and a panel discussion about conducting biomedical research in AI/AN communities.

NIMHD acting director Dr. Yvonne Maddox welcomed participants, recognizing the significant contributions to biomedical research made within native communities. She also cited advances both in community-based research practice and in understanding the impact of social determinants of health on health outcomes.

“We have outstanding researchers here with us today,” Maddox said. “We’re here to learn about some of the best research taking place in the U.S. and we want to know what the critical issues are that we need to address to move forward.”

Recognizing workforce diversity as one of the critical issues affecting biomedical research progress in AI/AN communities, NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak acknowledged the potential impact of the forum.

“This is a unique moment and opportunity to try to find greater ways of helping those underserved in research,” he said. “As we recognize contributions made, we also have to acknowledge the challenges day-to-day. We need to diversify the workforce to ensure we have everyone participating. To not have a diverse workforce really threatens our mission.”

Tracing his scientific journey over the last 35 years, panelist Dr. Spero Manson of the University of Colorado, Denver, discussed his key findings from studies that informed major innovations in reimbursement for care for traditional treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans and creative approaches to address the unmet mental health needs of the AI/AN population. He also expressed concern about the lack of diversity among peer reviewers and attention to minority inclusion in the scientific review process and the NIH workforce.

“Native researchers get caught up betwixt and between,” Manson said. “People like me need [NIH’s] support. We look at you as champions. I need NIH…to [help] explain to our leadership the desirability of diversity in science.”

Panelist Dr. Jeffrey Henderson of Black Hills Center for American Indian Health spoke about cancer in the AI/AN communities. He said recent research shows a profound geographic variation of cancer incidence and mortality rates across six major geographic regions of the United States. For example, for some tumor types, such as kidney, stomach and cervix, AI/ANs have higher cancer incidence rates than non-Hispanic whites. For this reason, non-Hispanic whites are not always an adequate group for comparison. More meaningful comparisons may be within-group comparisons. This calls for an examination of the causes of the profound geographic variation and the design of an integrated set of case-control studies. Henderson also expressed his concern with community-based initiatives in the AI/AN communities.

“In a variety of different discussions around the institutes, I think we realize community-based initiatives have a primary role,” he said. “Community-based organizations are not being as well supported. I would like to see a bigger discussion on how we could better support [them].”

Dr. Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center reported that few studies have assessed the environmental correlates of obesity in tribal communities and none have developed interventions to improve the food environments of Oklahoma tribal nations.

Through her study, Tribal Health and Resilience in Vulnerable Environments with Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations of Oklahoma, Jernigan is implementing healthy “makeovers” within tribally owned and operated convenience stores to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.

The afternoon panel looked at how to navigate challenges in conducting research. Led by NIH deputy director for extramural research Dr. Sally Rockey, discussion ranged from lack of AI/AN mentors and role models to the unique role NIH plays in promoting diversity in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences research workforce.

“Even though scientists have nationalities, science doesn’t have a nationality,” said Rockey. “We’re trying to find a way to pick up all the great science that gets left behind.”

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