The sweet smell of strawberries lingered as students wearing white lab coats and rubber gloves carefully mashed the fruit inside small plastic bags.

Seated at long tables in the classroom at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences this month, the 10 young men and women from the Yakama Nation Tribal School and the Mt. Adams School District were performing an experiment as part of the inaugural Summer Program for Yakama Students.

They strained the flattened fruit into clear plastic cups and added detergent, then salt and alcohol, before probing the mixture with small wood applicator sticks.

And there, dangling from the sticks, were the results — slender globs of mucus carefully teased from the red liquid.

“It looks like snot,” instructor Dr. Julie Habecker said as students laughed, happily grossed out after successfully isolating the fruit’s DNA.

The five-week-long science-based summer program for young Native Americans and Mexican-Americans living on the homelands of the Yakama Nation is the first of its kind in the Yakima Valley — and the country, supporters say.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the collaboration among PNWU, Heritage University in Toppenish and 
the Lower Valley schools is designed 
to provide opportunities for under-
represented youths to seek health professions.

“The cutting-edge science they get to work with is incredible,” said Dr. Maxine Janis, president’s liaison for Native American affairs at Heritage and program co-coordinator.

At the same time, students are learning traditional healing arts and integrating those Native American and Latino traditions and values to develop a holistic approach to medical and science careers.

“We are bringing traditional knowledge ... to how Western medicine provides education,” said Janis, who is Oglala Lakota (Sioux) and has worked in health care throughout Indian Country.

Dr. Mirna Ramos-Diaz, assistant professor of family medicine at PNWU and co-coordinator of the program, said the program combines traditions with science.

“We know that combining culture with science makes the course of study more accepted by students, who in turn will do better in these types of programs,” Ramos-Diaz said.

Cultural ties

Jayenell Lee, a student at White Swan High School who has wanted to be a neuroscientist since middle school, appreciates the educational opportunity and likes that it’s close to home. She also likes the effort to combine her Yakama culture with modern medicine.

“They use a lot of our culture and tie it in,” Lee said. “Every day we talk about our culture. Our culture is really part of what makes us, us.”

Janis, Ramos-Diaz and Dr. Naomi Lee from Northern Arizona University created the program, which is an extension of the Roots to Wings program, with collaboration among PNWU, the Tribal School and the Mt. Adams School District, that aims to get more Native American and Latino youths interested in careers in medicine and science.

Roots to Wings, which just completed its fifth year, pairs middle and high school students with PNWU medical students in a “co-mentoring” model, where the kids teach the med students about their traditions and heritage, and the med students 
teach them about medicine and pursuing higher education.

The 10 students who are part of the summer program are part of Roots to Wings.

Students are responsible for their own transportation to the classes at Heritage and PNWU and receive a voucher for gas. They are paid once they complete all their work.

“This is their job,” Ramos-Diaz said. “They have to arrive on time. We do provide a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch every day.”

Every student makes a final presentation, with graduation on Aug. 10. Once they turn 18, they can submit a competitive application for a two-month internship at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the NIH in Bethesda, Md.

Participants applied for the program, which didn’t require a minimum GPA, Ramos-Diaz said.

“They have incredible responsibilities at home. What we want is their potential and their desire,” she added.

Lessons

Along with pulling DNA from strawberries and salmon last week, students learned about gel electrophoresis, a method of separation and analysis of macromolecules and their fragments.

They also made small flat wa’paas baskets under the guidance of Bessie Wilson, who teaches free classes on how to make the utilitarian yarn bags.

This week, the summer program participants are studying neuroanatomy and will dissect sheep’s eyes and brains. And they will learn from Dr. David Wilson, director of the Tribal Health Research Office of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Rita Devine, program coordinator for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The two are among several guest lecturers in the program.

Christina Vasquez, 16, a student at White Swan High School, is relishing the experience.

“It’s giving us a little heads-up about what we’re doing in college and medical school,” said Vasquez, who wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Focus on health

Generally speaking, a greater percentage of Native Americans face health challenges with diabetes, cancer, oral health and cardiovascular issues than the general population, Janis said. The summer program is important because it encourages Native medical experts who could help improve the health of their family and friends.

“We have to have our own providers, our Native people, working in tribal communities to impact the health outcomes of our people,” Janis said.

That is exactly what Isis Sanchey, 16, wants to do.

“I want to get educated and come work for my tribe,” she said.

The summer program has a waiting list, Janis noted, as does Roots to Wings. She hopes to see both grow next year.

“Hopefully we’ll get funded again next year,” Janis said of the summer program. “I just think it’s critical that we continue programs like this to offer opportunities for our youth to step into this space.

“This is just the beginning.”