TSAILE, Ariz. — A $1.3 million National Institutes of Health grant could yield bigger than expected dividends if an intensive mentoring approach develops between Diné College and the University of Arizona takes off over the next several years.

While the focus of the funds is to create a pipeline of scholars to advance from Diné College to neuroscience programs at top-tier research universities, the grant’s goal is to engage selected scholars — irrespective of course of study — and increase the number of Native Americans in graduate schools and research careers.

“We have a dire need for more neuroscientists on the Navajo Nation. This will increase the amount of Navajo neuroscientists in the coming years,” Diné College President Charles Monty Roessel said. “We’re excited.”

The Undergraduate Readying for Burgeoning Research for American Indian Neuroscientists (URBRAIN) is the name of the collaborative partnership. It’s the first time a partnership has existed between Diné College and University of Arizona neuroscientists. What sets this program apart from other research opportunities for Diné College students is that it is a year-round program, not just a separate summer experience.

“This is a project that specifically benefits Navajo students at Diné College,” said Dr. Fred Boyd, an anatomy, physiology and biology instructor at Diné College.

Boyd is the Diné College point person for the partnership.

“It’s open to all Diné students, not simply traditional science students. The benefits to participating scholars are financial, intellectual and motivational with the scholar’s development being guided by a professional scientist mentor employed by the program,” he said.

The partnership is patterned after a similar one at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The school partners with a handful of tribal colleges, including Diné College, in an initiative called BLAST — Biomedical Learning and Student Training.

In explaining URBRAIN’s Diné College impact, Boyd said three Diné College students will be selected each year over the next five years to study the brain and neuroscience. The program utilizes tribal elders and singers to guide the cultural appropriateness of the research.

Boyd said the students will learn about research methods and safety, and wll be mentored about graduate school. Students will also learn about research methods, safety, technical classes and academic progress checks at Diné College. They will network with University of Arizona scientists and students and get an orientation to UA and experience two months of scientific research in Tucson each summer. The selection of student scholars is based on academic qualifications, vocational goals and mentor recommendations.

“The research programs available to our students cover a wide range from basic science to human medical pathologies,” Boyd said. “This is the first collaboration between Diné College’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program and the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona.”

URBRAIN recognizes that Native American students may approach the world — and the means to investigate it — from fundamentally different perspectives. In contrast to Western modes of thinking, Native American perspectives often are more holistic and narrative-based.

“By integrating the holistic perspective of the Navajo culture with the scientific problem-based approach of neuroscience, we will open new opportunities for Navajo students to pursue research relevant to their communities,” said Kathleen Rodgers, associate director of translational neuroscience at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center for Innovation in Brain Science.

Information provided by Dine College

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