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OSU Makes Effort to Recruit Native Students to Medicine, Science Careers

OSU Center for Health Sciences is recruiting more American Indian high school and college students into medicine and science careers.

Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences is launching an effort to recruit more American Indian high school and college students into medicine and science careers.

The Tulsa-based medical school established the Office for the Advancement of American Indians in Medicine and Science under the direction of Kent Smith, Ph.D., a member of the Comanche and Chickasaw Nations and associate professor of anatomy and cell biology.

“Our initiative will increase the number of American Indians practicing medicine and working in the science fields through mentoring and targeted programs,” said Smith, interim associate dean for the new office. “The efforts will help our Native American students in Oklahoma excel in these fields by offering hands-on experiences that combine Native culture and science.”

Oklahoma currently ranks 48th in the nation for the number of primary care physicians practicing per 100,000 people. Rural areas of the state and tribal communities are especially struggling with the lack of physicians.

“OSU Center for Health Sciences is committed to training physicians for rural and underserved areas of our state,” said OSU-CHS President Kayse Shrum. “Dr. Smith’s leadership will help OSU develop partnerships with tribal governments to establish new medical training programs that will benefit Native American students and address health care issues within our communities.”

According to a report released by Education Week, about 51 percent of American Indian students graduate from high school. Of those who go to college, only about 2.5 percent choose to enter a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field. These are statistics that Smith wants to change.

“We want to provide opportunities for American Indian students so they can succeed in these fields,” said Smith. “American Indians in Oklahoma represent about 9 percent of the population and we want to reach out to as many of them as possible. Ultimately we want to work with all 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma to introduce STEM and health careers to their citizens.”

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Through the Office for the Advancement of American Indians in Medicine and Science, Smith is reaching out to tribal leaders across the state to develop partnerships and showcase programs available at OSU-CHS. The new office will support programs like Native Explorers, Native STARS (co-founded by Nedra Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy), Operation Orange and other programs that will encourage American Indian students to consider careers in science and medicine. Smith is also working closely with William Pettit, and Doug Nolan, to address training in the medical field for all tribal nations.

“We strive to become the state’s best resource for recruiting and mentoring American Indian students in science and medicine,” said Smith. “This summer, with assistance from Ashley Milton, we partnered with existing OSU-CHS programs like Operation Orange to make certain Native American youth had an opportunity to participate. About 24 percent of the medical school summer camp participants were American Indians.” 

This summer, Smith and three second-year medical students, Rafe Coker, Choctaw, Colby Degiacomo, Choctaw, and Linsea Howard, Cherokee, presented four new STEM/mini-med camps for students in sixth-12th grades in the Durant area. These programs were sponsored by the Choctaw Nation.

Smith founded the Native Explorers program at OSU-CHS as a way of combining anatomy, paleontology and medicine with American Indian cultural experiences. With the success of this program, Smith and Reggie Whitten, co-founded the Native Explorers Foundation, which is directed by Jeff Hargrave. Since 2010, nearly 50 undergraduate and graduate Native American students have been mentored on scientific expeditions through Native Explorers.

“With the recent addition of Holly Ballard, Ph.D., and Paul Gignac, Ph.D., to the anatomy/paleontology faculty, the number of Native youth exposed to science and medicine at OSU-CHS will increase exponentially,” said Smith. “These outstanding scientists strongly support this goal of increasing the number of American Indians in STEM fields.”

Overall, Smith wants to increase the number of American Indians applying and accepted to medical school and the health care administration, biomedical sciences and forensic sciences graduate programs at OSU-CHS. By having more American Indians in these fields, Smith says it will have a positive impact on all Oklahoma communities.

“We will also work with tribes to weave culture and tradition into our training to help meet the health and wellness needs of our state’s Native American population,” said Smith. “This office will also be a resource for tribes in providing much needed health care to our state’s citizens.”