Indigenous students who are curious about medicine and vertebrate
fossils (saber-toothed cats, rhinos, horses, and bone-crushing dogs)
will be right at home in the Native Explorers program. The hands-on
program is offered each year through the Oklahoma State University
Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa, Okla. (There’s also a Junior
Explorers option for pre-K through 12th-grade students, offered through
the Chickasaw Nation.)
The nonprofit Native Explorers Foundation’s mission is to increase
the number of Native Americans pursuing careers in STEM and medicine.
The flagship program for the foundation is Native Explorers, which
focuses on the disciplines of anatomy and vertebrate paleontology to
provide off-campus activities for students as they work side by side
with Native American scientists, physicians, and graduate students.
Themes covered during the 12-day field-based curriculum include climate
change, evolution, comparative osteology, stratigraphy, mapping, healthy
lifestyles, and Native culture.
The annual application deadline is March 1, and the program generally
takes place in May. Eligible applicants must meet these qualifications:
be at least 18 years old; be an enrolled member of a federally
recognized tribe; have earned a high school diploma or equivalent; have a
good academic background (grades and service); have a letter of
recommendation from an instructor or advisor; and be interested in
learning about science and medicine.
The Native Explorers program is free to all participants thanks to
generous support from the Chickasaw Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Whitten Burrage Law Firm, the Native
Explorers Foundation, and the OSU Center for Health Sciences. Successful
participants are eligible to earn three hours of college credit from
Oklahoma State University.
Native Explorers is the brainchild of Dr. Kent Smith, who founded
the program 10 years ago as a way to recruit and educate the next
generation of Native Americans in science and medicine. Dr. Smith,
Comanche and Chickasaw, is a professor of anatomy at OSU’s Center for
Health Sciences. He also serves as associate dean of the Office of
American Indians in Medicine and Science and is a research associate at
the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
What inspired you to start Native Explorers? My Native
heritage is a great privilege and source of pride. A decade ago, I was
seeing very few medical students who were Native American, and I wanted
to change that. In my opinion, one of the greatest barriers to more
Native students pursuing STEM and medicine is a paucity of Native
mentors. If our Native youth and young adults don’t see people who look
like them in these careers, they’re less likely to see themselves on a
professional path in STEM or medicine.
Can you explain the link between paleontology and medicine?
We’ve definitely seen this happen. It’s a very unique opportunity, and
participants describe it as a defining experience in their lives. From a
more practical perspective, as we excavate fossil bones, skulls, and
teeth of ancient mammals, we translate what we see and learn to human
osteology and medicine. For example, to the untrained eye the bones of
the human hand look similar to those of a black bear. Using the
comparative method, the students learn how to differentiate the bones of
humans from those of other mammals. Analogous to a physician using the
method of differential diagnosis on a patient, we examine the morphology
of the fossil remains and look for possible pathologies caused by
injuries or diseases to build a story about the life history of the
What exactly happens over the course of the program? It starts
at the Center for Health Sciences campus in Tulsa, where we spend the
first day conducting an orientation, including an overview of topics
such as comparative anatomy, diseased and healthy organs, and how to
prospect, collect, preserve, and identify fossil remains. We also have
Native physicians and medical students on hand to lead discussions about
medicine, lifestyle, and health. After we establish this foundation, we
set off for an 11-day dig at one or two active research fossil quarries
managed by me or my colleague Dr. Nicholas Czaplewski, who is a curator
at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
What if someone is interested in the program but they’ve never been camping?
All qualified students with a genuine interest are encouraged to apply.
We’ve had successful participants from diverse backgrounds across the
country, and many have never set up a tent or camped before. To be sure
that everyone is safe and prepared, on the first day we offer
instruction on terrain and wildlife and skills such as reading
topographical maps and using hand gear like a compass or GPS unit. I’ve
seen students with very little outdoor experience perform very well.
What else is unique about the program? To my surprise, for
many explorers the program has been their first real exposure to their
own Native heritage and culture. A strong component of the program is
not only STEM, but traditional ways and culture. All participants have
the assignment of bringing something from their heritage — like a story,
a song, a dance — which requires them to look into where they’re from,
who their people are. Then we have different tribes represented around
the camp at night, sharing their stories. In recent years, we have
engaged more with the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nation culturalists to
learn about their beliefs and history, participate in cultural
activities, and spend a night in their traditional villages.
How have you seen the program impact students’ educational and career paths?
We’ve had nearly 120 participants complete our program so far. Most of
them go on to earn their undergraduate degrees and many have gone on to
graduate programs in STEM fields or professional programs in health care
(e.g., medicine, physician assistant, nursing, and physical therapy)
and law. In fact, past participants in the Native Explorers program
compose about 5 percent of the first-year class of OSU’s College of
Osteopathic Medicine. (Native American students make up about 16 percent
of the class.) Nationally, about 0.2 percent of the students enrolled
in medical schools (osteopathic and allopathic) are Native American.
We’ve also seen a number of participants go back to their tribes and
work within their tribal systems — decisions they all say were
influenced by their Native Explorers experience.
Safeguarding natural resources is a major focus of a new certificate
program for students interested in environmental issues. The
Environmental Stewardship of Indigenous Lands (ESIL) certificate program
at the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) is a first-of-its-kind
opportunity that provides training, internships, and job placement
support for qualifying college students.
CU Denver launched the ESIL program after deliberating with
like-minded organizations interested in preventing environmental
incidents and degradation on Indigenous lands across the country. The
integrated curriculum addresses the laws, regulations, cultural
considerations, natural resources priorities, and financial interests
that must be navigated in environmental stewardship. Its coursework
helps students prepare for careers as liaisons between tribal and
non-tribal stakeholders as they negotiate about the use and protection
of Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian resources.
Based in downtown Denver, this one-year program was developed with
STEM majors in mind and opens the possibility to work locally and
nationally with tribes and government organizations. Students pursuing
STEM degrees (especially in biology, civil engineering, and geology and
environmental sciences) can earn the ESIL certificate concurrent with
their undergraduate coursework.
An associate professor of civil engineering at CU Denver, Dr.
David Mays played a central role in designing and delivering the
school’s ESIL certificate program and serves as ESIL’s civil engineering
How did this program get started? One of my colleagues from
our Department of Integrative Biology, Dr. Timberley Roane, is from the
Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. She has been collaborating for years
with Native scientists outside the university as well as with our Native
students. It became clear after a number of conversations that there’s a
need for students in science and engineering who have cultural
awareness and mediation skills to become effective environmental
liaisons between tribal and non-tribal stakeholders.
What are the academic underpinnings of the program? We want
our ESIL candidates to have breadth and depth in STEM, so everybody gets
exposure to the basic sciences — classes in biology, chemistry,
physics, calculus, and geology. The next level of study includes
environmental engineering, geographic information systems, and
statistics — so that people can begin to advance beyond facts and
numbers to more critical thinking. As part of their core curriculum, we
also ask students to take courses in either communications and diversity
or leveraging diversity for inclusion in business. In addition, they
take a class in either environment, society and sustainability, or
What else is involved in the program? Beyond the coursework,
there are two key components: extracurricular activities and
internships. The extracurricular activities involve culturally relevant
training in topics such as tribal self-determination and environmental
law. Students participate in these extracurricular activities alongside
active tribal liaisons who share their experiences and help students
with the professional skills development needed for success. In
addition, students are required to complete at least one internship
where they practice aspects of facilitation as a tribal liaison for a
tribal, state, or U.S. federal agency. For example, this summer we are
planning internships with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado and
the Northern Arapaho Tribe on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
What is your overall objective in this inaugural year of the program?
This program is all about giving students a deep grounding in science
as well as in critical, complementary non-technical skills. We want to
provide a better path forward for stewarding land and natural resources
in a way that’s respectful from multiple perspectives. The need comes
down to finding ways to communicate on and elucidate challenging
environmental issues. Meeting that need requires facilitating
conversations between people who may not see eye to eye but ultimately
can work together and find resolution. We’re equipping people to help
make that happen with an education that goes well beyond a STEM
curriculum and is driven by a compelling purpose.