Haskell, KU work to bring more underrepresented communities into laboratory sciences

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Two dozen students explore native grasses, historical trauma and other topics

Haskell Indian Nations University graduate Dori Summers’ post-undergraduate research tapped into studies of how native grasses from Kansas to Illinois compared when studied for the purpose of restoring prairie plowed for commercial crop production.

Summers, who is from St. Marys and affiliated with the Dine tribe, has taken part since September in a National Institutes of Health-funded program at the University of Kansas. It’s designed to place recent college graduates from groups underrepresented in neuroscience, genetics, biochemistry, microbiology and other scientific fields in a one-year, $28,000 development program at KU with a faculty mentor. The goal is to usher students to enter graduate school.

She said farmers and ranchers demonstrated keen interest in improving grassland prairie habitat for grazing by livestock, while environmentalists understand the value of restoring what has been lost to the plow.

“I would like to help out a farmer with a piece of land, wanting to improve soil by using plants,” she said Friday during a presentation at HINU. “I’m very passionate about it.”

She said research on bluestem grass from three Midwest locations, including Hays, Kansas, indicated plants collected in southern Illinois presented a special capacity to adapt well outside local habitat. Historically, emphasis has been placed on using local variations of plants to restore acreage no longer needed for raising crops. The research could help with sourcing of seeds to rewild prairies or wetlands in the Midwest, she said.

“For restoration purposes,” Summers said, “these differences mean we need to be conscious of not only what sites we should draw from, but also which species from different populations are likely to grow faster.”

Summers said she planned to remain at KU and enter a master’s degree program.

Ileana Larkin, left, a graduate of Haskell Indian Nations University, is taking part in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program at the University of Kansas, and intends to seek a graduate degree in social work. She took part in a presentation of research Friday at HINU. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
 Ileana Larkin, left, a graduate of Haskell Indian Nations University, is taking part in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program at the University of Kansas, and is weighing possibility of a graduate degree in social work. She took part in a presentation of research Friday at HINU. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Cultural losses

Ileana Larkin, who is with the Shoshone-Bannock tribe and from Fort Hall, Idaho, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Haskell. She is part of the same Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, or PREP, that Summers entered. Larkin said she was considering entering graduate school and preparing for a career as a social worker.

Her research project focused on historical trauma among Native Americans, which could be defined as the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, as well as development of culturally appropriate services for benefit of generations influenced by that trauma.

Initial efforts to measure historical loss didn’t fully capture the impact of striking down culture, language and lives, Larkin said. It’s important to integrate the Native American experience and challenges with substance abuse, medical conditions from diabetes to depression, and extreme poverty into the conversation, she said.

“How can we measure all the losses they’ve endured in their lives? It is hard to measure, because it is continuous. Even to this day, they still face oppression,” she said.

Larkin said an advanced education would allow her to work with Idaho students who struggle to grasp how they were impacted by problems of their parents and grandparents, including those sent to boarding schools designed to strip them of Native culture.

“I’d like to work with the younger students, maybe even high school students. They don’t know what is affected them,” she said.

 Danielle Williams, a sophomore at the University of Kansas from Kansas City, Kansas, is taking part in KU’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers program to encourage students to enter biomedical fields. She is interested in researching plant-based medicine. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Maize to medicine

Danielle Williams, a KU sophomore from Kansas City, Kansas, and working toward a degree in microbiology, said she had been given the opportunity to work in two labs as an undergraduate student. Her most recent experience introduced her to research comparing hybrid corn varieties to genetic parent varieties.

She said KU researchers studied hybrid and inbred lines of maize with soil from North Carolina and Kansas. They were looking at reasons hybrid vigor, also known as heterosis, was superior in hybrid seed. Genetics of corn seed was an established factor, she said, but KU researchers pointed to microbial influences as a contributor.

“I’m planning to evaluate whether the Kansas and North Carolina soil has an effect on carbon and nitrogen ratios in the plant,” Williams said.

Williams is part of KU’s research-focused program for undergraduate students. Maximizing Access to Research Careers attempts to interest students in biomedical-related fields of research. And, Williams anticipates moving on to graduate school.

“I want to work with diseases and treatments,” she said. “I know that with antibiotics a lot of people are allergic to it. I would like to work on plant-based treatments.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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