WSU helping increase diversity of scientists conducting Native health research

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Two Washington State University projects designed to train a new generation of scholars in Native health have received more than $6 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding as part of the National Institute on Aging’s Resource Center on Minority Aging Research (RCMAR) program.

The WSU projects share the overarching objective of increasing the diversity of scientists conducting research with Native populations in the United States.

Dedra Buchwald

The first project, Community Health and Aging in Native Groups of Elders (CHANGE), is led by Dedra Buchwald, MD, founding director of the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH) and a professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. The nearly $3 million in NIH funding over 5 years will enable Dr. Buchwald and her collaborators to provide an inclusive research training curriculum to a diverse cohort of nine scientists pursuing careers in community-based participatory research on aging with Native people.

These junior faculty will conduct pilot studies for which they are provided a holistic framework of support, including mentoring, professional development, research excellence, and integration into a network of scientists, alumni, and community partners.

Closeup of Julie Baldwin
Julie Baldwin

In leading the new program, Dr. Buchwald, who has served as the program director of the prior iteration of CHANGE for 25 years, is joined by Julie Baldwin, PhD, Regents’ Professor of Health Sciences and executive director of the Center for Health Equity Research at Northern Arizona University, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

As a group, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations face striking health disparities, largely due to systemic inequities and discrimination in areas such as health and healthcare, housing, education, employment, and exposures to environmental toxins, along with risk factors related to the built environment. Moreover, these communities are often reluctant to engage in research, in part because it has historically been done in or on these communities rather than with them.

“To address these concerns, we strive to increase the number of American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander health researchers,” said Dr. Buchwald. “This is the primary emphasis of our training program. Native people are more willing to participate in studies led by Native investigators and in which communities are equal partners.”

However, for generations, Native people have had limited representation in academia due to a variety of factors, ranging from inadequate mentoring to discrimination.

“Our success in increasing the diversity of researchers interested in dementias is largely due to our approach that features Native role models, responsive mentoring, and peer networking, all of which help prevent isolation,” Dr. Buchwald said. “Of the 16 faculty members involved in the CHANGE RCMAR, 10 are Native and several are alums of the program.”

The predecessor to the CHANGE project, the Native Investigator Development Program, has been a national leader in increasing the representation of Native researchers in the behavioral, social, biomedical, and clinical sciences since its inception at the University of Colorado, Denver, in 1998. Of its 54 alumni, 51 identify as American Indian or Alaska Native and 26 are now tenured faculty. The CHANGE project is broadening the program’s focus to also train Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander junior faculty and to address the health disparities experienced by these populations.

Closeup of Patrik Johansson
Patrik Johansson

A second award from the NIH, the Native Alzheimer’s Disease RCMAR, is led by Patrik Johansson, MD, a professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and IREACH, and James Galvin, MD, professor of neurology and director of the Comprehensive Center for Brain Health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Closeup of James Galvin
James Galvin

This program, which will receive almost $3.3 million in funding over 5 years, will similarly work to increase the number of Native junior investigators as well as others who are researching Alzheimer’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease related dementias.

Dr. Buchwald, who has served as the principal investigator of the Native Alzheimer’s Disease RCMAR at WSU since its initial funding in 2018, will now lead its training component.

“As an alumnus of the Native Alzheimer’s Disease RCMAR, I am excited and honored to continue promoting the representation of Native and other underrepresented minority junior faculty in aging research, specifically as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease related dementias,” said Dr. Johansson. “The National Institutes of Health recognizes that bringing the unique experiences of underrepresented minority researchers to the academic workforce improves the likelihood that underserved populations will benefit from health research. As such, this program represents a vehicle to address health disparities experienced by Native and other underrepresented minority communities.”

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