SKC Life Sciences Degree focuses on research

Nov 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: 23-2: Climate Commitment, Research, Tribal College News
By Doug Stevens, Ph.D.

A number of educational institutions have focused on trying to increase the under-representation of American Indians in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Salish Kootenai College (SKC, Pablo, MT) is making inroads in addressing this pressing issue.

In November 2010, SKC was granted full accreditation for its new Bachelor of Science Degree in Life Sciences by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. With this degree, we believe that SKC became the first tribal college to offer a full fouryear, molecular-based science degree.

This program serves students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in the area of life sciences, biomedical research, and environmental health or a pre-professional track, such as prepharmacy and pre-medicine. It gives them the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s degree within the nurturing tribal college system, rather than going the route of a “2+2” transfer to a larger, mainstream institution.

The development of this new science program was funded primarily through three federal programs: the National Institute of Health’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement, National Science Foundation’s Tribal College and University Program, and the U.S. Department of Defense Tribal College and University Instrumentation Program.

With this support, the SKC Department of Life Sciences has established two undergraduate research laboratories with state-of-the-art instrumentation. It now offers paid research internships to its Life Sciences students.

At the SKC Cellular and Molecular Biology Lab, students investigate viral, bacterial, and plant genomics, as well as structural biology of extremophilic yeasts. Current projects at the SKC Environmental Chemistry Lab include researching reservation environmental health impacts of heavy metals and investigating the impact heavy metals may play in the health of Atlantic seals.

The faculty includes four research-trained Ph.D.s, all of whom are deeply dedicated to the student mentoring process. These combined factors have allowed SKC to emphasize the research component of the degree plan and provide the academic rigor required to successfully transition students into research-based graduate science programs.

This research-centered approach is already bearing fruit. SKC Life Sciences students have successfully competed at national science meetings, such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, and the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Three students who participated in the program prior to accreditation are currently in graduate biomedical research tracks.

Additionally, the quality of student research is high enough to have produced what we believe is the first peer-reviewed research paper to be published based on undergraduate research performed at a tribal college. (Stevens, D.K., McDonald, K., and Bishop, N. (2009) Are lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) from Flathead Lake, Montana, USA “safe” to eat? An integrate mercury risk evaluation study. Environmental Bioindicators, 4, 303- 316.) Student research has also had a real community health impact by causing a revision of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fish consumption advisories. We anticipate that three more follow-up manuscripts on the impact of mercury will be submitted within the next year based on current, ongoing work.

Such success illustrates how tribal colleges can focus their research efforts for the betterment of the community they serve. Furthermore, having students’ names on peer-reviewed scientific journal articles is a tremendous boost to their confidence.

At the completion of the junior year, summer internships in graduate research labs are available at area universities. This “externship” experience is designed to increase their research skills, increase their professional contacts, and create support networks.

With such a preparation, we are finding that our students are very attractive to mainstream institution graduate science programs. In this way, we are hoping to begin to address the small numbers of American Indians in the STEM fields.

For more information about this program, visit the SKC Life Sciences website (http://lifesci.skc.edu), or contact Doug Stevens at (406) 275-4945 or doug_stevens@skc.edu.

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