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Spotlight: Building Knowledge and Community: The Native Investigator Development Program

by Juan Amador, Norma Poll, Ph.D., and Kehua Zhang, Ph.D.

Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supported 36,000 research grants in 1999, only nine were awarded to investigators who identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native. Spero Manson, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of Colorado and an expert in Native American health care and health disparities, was one of five native investigators receiving those awards in that year. In response to this scarcity of American Indian and Alaska Native researchers, he created the Native Investigator Development Program (NIDP) to meet the unique needs of junior American-Indian and Alaska-Native investigators, as well as non-native researchers who focus on the intersection of culture, aging, and health. The success of the program is evident in the 2006 NIH awards to native investigators. From over 47,000 NIH research grants awarded, 24 went to American Indian and Alaska Native investigators for that year. Many of Manson’s protégés were among them.

Mentor to Native researchers

A Pembina Chippewa, Dr. Manson’s achievements as a mentor are evidenced in the numerous Native investigators who credit him with their successes. Of the first ten investigators to complete the program, three have been supported by Minority Investigator Research Supplement Awards and three with Career Development Awards. These program graduates currently serve as principal investigators, co-investigators, or project leaders on twelve NIH grants.

Manson reflects upon the outcomes of the program with great pride: “Seeing these younger colleagues secure substantial support from the NIH to conduct desperately needed, highly relevant research on Indian health; seeing their work subsequently published by prestigious journals, attesting to the quality of the science they produce; seeing them appointed to important positions of scientific leadership; and knowing that there are several generations of younger American Indian and Alaska Native colleagues now in place to carry this agenda forward.”

In 2006, the Association of American Medical Colleges recognized Dr. Manson’s work to advance the health and welfare of American Indian and Alaska Native communities with the prestigious Herbert W. Nickens Award.

A Unique Training Program for Developing Native American Investigators

The two-year post-doctoral NIDP training experience cultivates externally funded scientists who focus on health disparities and aging issues for Native populations. The program operates as a collaboration between the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and the University of Washington. Financial support comes in part from the National Institute on Aging’s Resource Centers on Minority Aging Research. Intense mentorship forms the heart of the program, which is modeled after the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Clinical Scholars Program External Link.

Each participant works with a mentoring team consisting of a core faculty mentor with expertise in the participant’s research area, a statistics mentor, and a scientific writing mentor. In addition to the program’s core faculty mentors, other faculty attend meetings to enrich discussions and provide feedback. All faculty mentors have extensive publication and funding records-- a critical attribute in guiding upcoming researchers. The core mentors lead participants through the design and conduct of two pilot studies, manuscript preparation, and mock reviews for NIH, RO1 or K award applications.

The NIDP boasts several distinctive features that contribute to its achievements:

  • Salary support for 35% of each investigator’s time
  • Multidisciplinary faculty and participants
  • Incorporation of quantitative and qualitative analytical research methodologies
  • The mission of focusing on Native elders’ well-being
  • Team and individual mentoring for trainees
  • Distance-learning that keeps the team mentoring approach intact
  • An individualized curriculum to account for participants’ previous training and home institution demands

NIDP Graduates’ Insights into Careers in Research

Kelly R. Moore M.D., pediatrician and Captain in the U.S. Public Health service, is an NIDP alumnus with a special interest in diabetes. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, she works on a national diabetes program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her accomplishments were recognized with the Physician of the Year Award from the Association of American Indian Physicians in 2006. Additionally, the National Library of Medicine’ exhibit, Changing the Face of Medicine External Link honored her for influencing and enhancing the practice of medicine.

Dr. Moore describes her two-year experience in the program as “valuable and powerful.” She found it stimulating to have her efforts intensely scrutinized by her mentors. “The goal was to improve the work. The faculty was focused on our professional development. They provided excellent critiques of work along the way.” Dr. Moore emphasizes that “having mentors who were American Indians or Alaska Natives” was one of the most important features of the program “because they understood many of the hardships and obstacles that investigators often encounter in research that involves American Indians and Alaska Natives communities.” Not only did the mentors understand the researchers, they also comprehended the community’s concerns. She points out that often “American Indians and Alaska Natives communities feel as though research is conducted on them, but they never see the results or know how or what happened. Native investigators bring in a greater sensitivity to engaging the community in addressing the issues.”

One of the most important outcomes arises from program graduates who become mentors. Dr. Moore explains, “When bright, young, motivated American Indian and Alaska Native people encounter other Native researchers who come to the community and ask them to become engaged in the research, it opens their eyes and some doors, to the possibilities of careers in science, or as researchers.”

From the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, Dorothy Rhoades, M.D., M.P.H. is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Health Science Center and a clinical instructor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Rhoades’ current research looks at the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease in American Indian and Alaska Natives. For one of her studies, she collaborated with the local Indian clinic and community members to design and implement a program to enhance the fitness of older American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Prior to fellowship with the University of Washington School of Medicine Native American Center of Excellence, she perceived research and academia as being out of touch with the needs of Native communities. She felt no inclination to pursue academic research. Now, she believes that research makes a life-saving difference. “Through intensive mentorship, the program taught me how to write better scientific articles, navigate the often bewildering administrative requirements for research, and connect with tribal communities. The Native Investigator Development Program honors traditional Native American values by showing respect to everyone through the research work. This is highly valued by tribal people who might otherwise avoid participating in research or pursuing an academic career.” Clearly, the spirit of the Native Investigator Development Program is alive in its researchers and their programs.

Faculty Vitae

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