Building New Programs at Tribal Colleges

Volume 23, No. 4 - Summer 2012
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RESEARCH AND RESULTS. Stevens reviews results with SKC Life Sciences student researchers Was'tewin Smiley (Diné/Eskimo/Dakota Sioux) and Trey Saddler (Chippewa Cree).

In November 2011, Salish Kootenai College (SKC, Pablo, MT) was granted full accreditation for its new Bachelor of Science Degree in Life Sciences. While several tribal colleges offer other science degrees—most commonly, environmental science—SKC is the first tribal college to offer a four-year, molecular-based science degree.

At a time when American Indians are drastically underrepresented in the hard sciences, and as federal agencies show interest in addressing the issue, SKC’s success in starting a program virtually from scratch can offer guidance to other tribal colleges wishing to establish similar programs.

So what does it take to start a new science program? First and foremost, it is important to remember that science requires a significant investment of both time and money. Real science must be based on active learning and discovery, just as it is in the real world. Teaching science requires an active research laboratory with adequate tools of the trade and an operating budget. It also requires faculty with the necessary skills, motivation, and release time to develop research projects and mentor students in the lab. Additionally, faculty members need the motivation, time, and skill to write grants.

Luckily, there are federal agencies— including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Defense—that offer funding to cover every one of these building blocks. One additional ingredient is required: perseverance. Landing a large development award often requires participating in more than one application cycle. It is also important to pay attention to the agency’s recommendations.

The good news is that they really do want to fund new programs.

Within the 28 National Institutes of Health, two institutes in particular fund program development at tribal colleges: the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). NIGMS funds the lion’s share of program development grants at minority serving institutions through their Minority Biomedical Research Support Branch. NIGMS has been reorganizing some of its minority programs lately, but the one upon which SKC relied— the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), which offers four-year development grants— remains intact. The goal of RISE is to increase the number of students from groups underrepresented in biomedical and behavior research who complete Ph.D. programs in those fields. A complete description of the program, and a helpful FAQ’s link, can be found at:

Tribal colleges might also consider applying to the NIMHD Research Infrastructure in Minority Institutions Program, which provides resources to “strengthen faculty-initiated research programs and improve the scientific infrastructure of predominately minority- serving academic institutions.” More information is available at:

Most, if not all, tribal colleges are aware of the NSF’s Tribal College and University Program (TCUP). Although it has undergone changes over the years, NSF remains committed to funding the development of new Bachelor of Science programs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. These are large, institutional, five-year development grants. SKC used its last TCUP grant to help develop its life sciences degree program and others, such as one in computer engineering. TCUP grants are far less constrained than, say, RISE, in that they can be used to support efforts across all STEM fields.

In addition to TCUP, NSF also supports meetings organized by the nonprofit Quality Education for Minorities Network. These meetings bring together tribal college faculty and grant managers from several different agencies to facilitate competitive grant applications from tribal colleges.

Within the past decade, the Department of Defense has implemented two important programs that help tribal colleges establish research labs. These include the Instrumentation Program for Tribal Colleges and Universities, and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Institutions Program. Only tribal colleges and universities can apply for the former while the latter is also open to other minorityserving institutions.

SKC has benefitted from both Department of Defense programs. A majority of the instrumentation that we use in our two research labs (the Cellular and Molecular Biology Lab and the Environmental Chemistry Lab) has come through these programs. Unfortunately, the status of these programs is somewhat in doubt at this point.

Finally, there is the matter of institutional support. Faculty need time to develop new programs such as SKC’s Life Sciences program, and an institution’s administrators must recognize that results will not occur overnight. At SKC, the administration has continued to support our efforts and has even devoted some of its U.S. Department of Education Title III building funds toward the construction of new lab and office space to house our new program. Other tribal colleges may have space that can be converted. Either way, space needs to be devoted to undergraduate research labs.

So what was the cost of developing SKC’s new Life Sciences program? While it is difficult to put an exact figure on it, I would estimate it has taken approximately $4 million—from the time of our first RISE award in 2006 to the point we are at today.

Currently, the Life Sciences program has four fulltime faculty members, two research labs, and a cadre of students active in the labs. We have already begun to see the payoffs, including increased enrollment in our degree program, quality student research presentations at national meetings (at the 2011 national meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), for example, four of our students won poster awards), and the first peer reviewed article based on undergraduate student research at a tribal college. Additionally, graduate programs around the country have taken a keen interest in our students. We feel the effort has been worth it, and we stand ready to collaborate with other tribal colleges in their efforts to develop the hard science programs that are right for them.

Dr. Douglas K. Stevens directs the Life Sciences Department at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, MT. In 2011, he was named Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Distinguished Community/Tribal College Mentor of the Year.