‘YES Oklahoma’ Project Aims to Improve American Indian Representation in Cancer Research

The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Oklahoma an expected $2 million over five years to develop a program to improve the representation of American Indian students in biomedical and cancer research.

“American Indian professionals are underrepresented in scientific fields, particularly those in biomedical research, and near-absent in cancer research,” said the project’s director, Cecil M. Lewis Jr., Ph.D. “This discrepancy impacts community health; there is a substantial health disparity in cancer impacting American Indians, particularly cancer types where regular screening, early detection and access to health care have a large impact. A more robust health care workforce and infrastructure, one with strong ties to communities, should reduce these rates.”

Lewis is a professor of anthropology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences at OU. The project’s co-directors are Cara Monroe, Ph.D., research scientist for OU’s Center for the Ethics of Indigenous Genomics Research; Rajagopal Ramesh, Ph.D., professor of pathology in the OU College of Medicine, and associate director for education and training at the OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center; and Kent Smith, Ph.D., (Comanche/Chickasaw), professor of anatomy and cell biology at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences and associate dean for the Office of American Indians in Medicine and Science that serves both the OSU-CHS Tulsa campus and the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation.

Lewis said the program will provide a research training strategy in which American Indian high school students will engage in hands-on scientific research, with a strong emphasis in cancer research. Two different cohort groups, one of students and one of Oklahoma teachers, will support community building and sustainability of the student training pipeline.

YES Oklahoma Scholars, eligible high school juniors and seniors, will have the opportunity to participate in an intensive summer research experience and earn college credit. YES Oklahoma Teachers, middle and high school teachers from partner schools across the state, will participate in a summer training event that includes curriculum development, as well as salary and compensation benefits. Students enrolled in these teachers’ classes, a third beneficiary group called YES Oklahoma Trainees, also benefit from the teachers’ participation by taking part in the curriculum.

Lewis said the grant also provides support for graduate student training and mentorship at OU and the OSU Center for Health Sciences.

“Together, the directors, scholars, teachers, trainees and graduate students, along with associated communities and tribes, will form the YES Oklahoma Outreach Team, providing education in cancer prevention focused on families and communities,” Lewis said. “The YES Oklahoma program will directly impact over 76 scholars and teachers annually, and the combined outreach events will indirectly impact thousands of underserved students, teachers, families and community members.”

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