Shere Byrd
Shere Byrd

The diabetes research team includes senior Cellular & Molecular Biology students (left to right) Brittany Walters, Leon Clah, and Gabe Thom, with their faculty leader, Dr. Shere Byrd (second from left).

It's a fact that Native Americans have a much higher incidence of diabetes than other groups in the United States, due to factors both genetic and environmental.

But thanks to an undergraduate research project being conducted by the Fort Lewis Department of Biology, Native college students may soon have some strategies to combat this debilitating and dangerous disease.

"The diabetes project is another fine example of the faculty-guided research that Fort Lewis College students are doing," says Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Maureen Brandon. "It’s relevant to our students, and the results can make an important contribution to the development of detection and treatment methods for diabetes."

Diabetes is a chronic and incurable disease that inhibits the body's ability to produce or respond to insulin, a hormone that allows blood sugar to enter the cells of the body and be used for energy. Type 1 diabetes usually occurs during childhood or adolescence; type 2 diabetes, the most common, usually arises after age 45.

The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 12 percent of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives over the age of 19 are afflicted with type 2 diabetes (versus 5 percent of the general population), and that that rate is rising rapidly. One tribe in Arizona has the highest rate of diabetes in the world -- about 50 percent of tribal members between the ages of 30 and 64 have the disease, which can lead to kidney failure, amputations and blindness.

According to the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Native Americans and other non-Caucasian peoples may have inherited a "thrifty gene" that allowed their ancestors to use food more efficiently during feast-and-famine cycles. With modern diets and contemporary lifestyles, though, this gene causes those populations to be more susceptible to obesity and to developing type 2 diabetes.

One of the environmental factors that can trigger the genetic switches leading to diabetes is a dramatic and stressful change of location and routine -- such as going to college away from the familiarity and security of home.

Just what role those changes, demands and stresses play in setting up Native college students for the onset of diabetes is the subject of the study being undertaken this year by senior Biology students under Biology Professor Shere Byrd. The study looks at biological indicators of diabetes in Native and non-Native students on the Fort Lewis campus, links those indicators to situations in the students' lives, and compares similar Native and non-Native students for the effects of those college-life circumstances.

"The most rewarding experience so far has been knowing that we are part of a research project that is extremely applicable to the large Native community we have here in the Southwest," says Gabe Thom, a senior Biology major from Evergreen, who is part of the student research team. "I have learned that a huge part of conducting research is knowing how to cater to your participants. You must always focus on how the project will eventually help out the community and the world."

A study important to Fort Lewis students

The technical description of the research, according to Byrd, is "to determine if Native American college students at Fort Lewis College have a stronger propensity for insulin resistance than their non-Native peers based on well-known body type and cellular indicators."

In her preliminary research, Byrd found biological markers associated with insulin resistance, stress and inflammation, "which also seem to be underlying causes of the progression into full-fledged diabetes," she says. For the project, Byrd gave students a list of indicators and variables they could look at. Last semester, working as a research team, "we decided which variables would be most indicative, that we could actually measure," she explains. This semester, students are collecting and analyzing samples in lab.

"We have a population at risk because of that [inherited gene], and because they're first-time college students," says Byrd. "They're coming off the reservation, they're coming out of their culture, and they're coming to college. It's stressful in a different way for them than it is for non-Native students, who tend to have have more cultural and societal ease in transitioning to college. One of the things that's very clear is that stress load contributes to the progression of some of these diseases."

The purpose of the study, says Byrd, is to help Native students at Fort Lewis and elsewhere find ways to reduce their risk of acquiring diabetes by creating awareness and developing coping strategies as they adapt to college life. While Byrd expects the research to help Native students, she chose this research project because she also wanted to offer her seniors something exciting and meaningful to explore. "These students have done an exceptional job, and they're really psyched about it," Byrd says. "We're doing some sophisticated molecular biology."

Heather Dahm, a senior Biology major from Pagosa Springs, looks to become a physician. She believes her work on this project will help her reach that goal.

"Working on this project has been a great opportunity to connect textbook concepts with real-life situations," says Dahm. "Diabetes is a growing problem, and being able to add even a small amount to the substantial research about it is very rewarding. It's great to be a part of research working with the student population on campus and conducting a study that may potentially impact the health of FLC students."

Student-led project teaches about real world of research

In addition to being meaningful and relevant research performed by students, the diabetes study is also teaching these student researchers that there is more to real-world research than just developing a plan and working in the lab.

"We went through the process of getting approval by the Fort Lewis Research Review Board," says Byrd. "The students also all wrote applications for mini-grants to the dean for undergraduate research support. Then the students created a presentation to go into classrooms to recruit test subjects."

The last step, in particular, expanded the students' understanding of the challenges of doing research with human subjects. The students so far have recruited about 90 participants to the project -- about 35 Native students, and the rest non-Native students who will work as a control group. The student researchers soon found that gathering those participants was not easy, notes Byrd.

"The students learned a lot by going in and trying to recruit people," says Byrd. "They had fellow students ask them questions like 'Why are you doing this?' and 'What do you hope to gain from this?' 'What's the benefit?' 'Why should I give my time for what you're doing?' All those are questions researchers get asked all the time."

"Working on this project has given me a taste of how the research life is," says senior Biology major Edlin Molinar-Enriquez, from Collbran. "I have realized how much work goes just in beginning a study. I have learned the importance of presenting a well-written grant proposal, being prepared and meeting submission deadlines, being extremely organized, and working with a team of great individuals."

Culture plays a role in research

Cultural issues, in particular, were a challenge for the student researchers. Among some Native people research can be culturally unacceptable, and others see a problem with using Native Americans for research since they have been exploited in the past for medical studies. "My students have to deal with that, and answer those questions," says Byrd, who adds that Native American & Indigenous Studies faculty helped the student researchers in explaining and promoting the study to Native students.

Leon Clah, a senior Biology major and Chemistry minor from the Navajo Nation working on the research team, feels that the research will be an asset to Native students at Fort Lewis and elsewhere.

"I will be investigating adiponectin, both as a hormone and as a gene, and how it relates to metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance here at Fort Lewis College," explains Clah. "Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are a huge problem to my Native American tribe and many other Native American tribes across this country. In being able to show that this could possibly be a genetic issue and not one of lifestyle will lead health care practitioners to re-evaluate this disease.

"The research that I’m doing is important to Native Americans in understanding how different we are in how we evolved over the centuries," Clah continues. "There isn’t much research done with Natives, and I’m not sure if it is due to a lack of passion or participation. I made my decision years ago that in order for me to help my people I had to separate culture from science."

Results of study could be start of something bigger

This year's student research by these Biology seniors is exciting, interesting, challenging and meaningful work. But, Byrd hopes, it is just the beginning of a longer-term series of projects.

"Traditionally diabetes prevention focuses on diet and exercise, but that's very Western,"says Byrd. "Native students say they do other things to find balance and relaxation. There are lots of other culturally appropriate things that we don't think of as being beneficial, but would benefit this particular group of students, such as sweat lodges and community building.

"If this study shows that there needs to be an intervention," Byrd continues, "then we would write a grant for a bigger study where we'd collect more data with the goal of eventually finding culturally appropriate interventions or prevention strategies that could be implemented on our campus, and modeled on other campuses with Native populations.

"This could be an interdisciplinary study," says Byrd, "that would involve faculty and students from other departments and fields around campus working together toward a common goal."

And that, concludes Byrd, would be good for everyone involved -- including herself. "It's very fun for me," says Byrd. "It's important. And the more we know about it, the better."

For more information or if you're interested in participating in the diabetes study, email Shere Byrd.