Asking more from healthcare
Chesleigh Keene (Psychology, '06) recalls conversations leading her to a career and research in Indigenous health.
At 18 years old in 2002, Chesleigh Keene (Psychology, ’06) declared a double major in English and Pre-Law and signed up for the Honors program at Fort Lewis College. Keene, a member of the Navajo Nation, plugged into the Native American Center and joined the student newspaper staff during her first semester. She added a Statistics of Psychology course the following term and discovered an immediate passion for collecting data and measuring the science behind the mind and behavior. By the end of her first year, she knew her calling and switched to a major in Psychology.
“It was a classic liberal arts experience; the framework encourages you to take classes in other fields, and the environment is set up so you can have every experience you want,” Keene said. “I was thinking of being a writer or a lawyer, but the stats class made me think I’m a researcher.”
Keene’s interest in Psychology grew as she became more involved in campus life, from cohosting radio shows with friends to joining the triathlon club. Her Psychology classes incorporated self-constructed research projects with support from faculty like Professor of Psychology Brian Burke. Classroom discussions focused on the health of diverse patients, including local tribal communities and family members of students she worked alongside during her time at FLC.
With a diverse student body like Fort Lewis’, we get creative ideas and voices rarely heard in health sciences. It majorly impacts how we improve people’s lives in the Four Corners region and beyond.
“I remember watching my peers transform for Hozhoni Days into powerful members of their communities,” she said. “It was beautiful and meant a lot to me. I’ve sought similar environments where diversity is visible and celebrated everywhere I’ve gone since.”
Keene recalled discussions around the retention of Indigenous students as her peers would leave for ceremony and not return. Professors and Native American Center advisors would say that “people’s personal obligations are the most important things,” she noted.
“Those conversations made me feel seen when I needed to go for ceremony or participate in cultural events. They never made me feel like I was a bad student; it was more that this is a part of who this student is.”
For her senior independent study project, Keene surveyed peers about their eating behaviors after seeing photos of attractive people. She speculated that folks were more likely to control their eating habits in an unhealthy way after viewing the images.
“I remember doing the analysis and being so bummed that the results didn’t support my hypothesis,” she said. “But Brian [Burke] encouraged me to sit with the data and see if I could find anything else interesting.”
Keene took his advice and, sure enough, noticed that cycling team members she surveyed rated the effects of the attractive images as “Very Strong,” highlighting conscientious eating behaviors. She submitted her findings to the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association Conference.
“It was exciting; I thought, ‘This is research,’” Keene recalled, adding she would’ve given up on the project had Burke not suggested she keep going.
“Mentorship is a big theme in my life,” she said. “I always appreciated how the professors talked to me. Brian told me he didn’t know any Native American psychologists–yet. ‘You would be the first I know,’ he said. The acknowledgment of that was very powerful; it stuck with me.”
Besides support for research projects, Keene said Burke and fellow faculty would take extra time to help students understand the varied paths of psychology career options.
“They helped me sort out what I was most interested in,” she said. “I don’t know if I would’ve thought to apply for a Ph.D. program if I hadn’t had that much access as an undergraduate to my faculty. I definitely wasn’t on a straight trajectory to becoming a health psychologist.”
Keene graduated from FLC in 2006 with a degree in Psychology. To get accepted into a Ph.D. program, she knew she needed a lot of research experience, but she applied for six Ph.D. programs around the country anyway…and got into zero. Keene secured a job at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute and later applied for a master’s program in Community Counseling at Loyola University Chicago. After Loyola, she moved to Denver for a two-year position studying neurotrauma, which revealed her knack for medicine. Her boss was an orthopedic surgeon and, impressed by her knowledge and aptitude, encouraged Keene to pursue medical school. She was torn.
“I like knowing why things happen in the body, but I’m more interested in what people think and feel than in biomechanics; I’m a people person,” she decided.
So, Keene applied for Ph.D. programs again and–thanks to her accumulating research skills–got accepted into all of them.
“I chose the University of Denver for similar reasons as Fort Lewis College,” she said. “They immediately introduced me to the Inclusive Excellence Office and the Native Student Alliance Office. The message was very much, ‘You and all of your identity belong here, and we have ways to support you.’”
In 2018, Keene earned her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from DU. She returned to the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute to complete an American Psychological Association-accredited clinical residency. After her residency, she acquired a postdoctoral research fellowship in population health at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute. In 2020, Keene accepted positions as an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s Department of Educational Psychology and an affiliated research faculty member at NAU’s Center for Health Equity Research.
“It’s the only school I applied to that has a strong health focus in the Counseling program, so I really get to explore my research identity as a trained psychologist,” she said. “Therapy is one of my favorite things, and it’s the best thing we can offer patients. I also get to talk about all these social components that impact people’s well-being. I’m trying to understand how we can better grasp how we look at culture and use that to empower patients.”
As an interdisciplinary researcher, Keene currently works with Indigenous communities and other underserved populations historically excluded from preventative healthcare studies. She focuses on population health, mobile and sensing technologies as tools to reduce health disparities, cultural models and predictors of wellness, and psychosocial factors that improve health outcomes. Her funded projects include examining mental wellness and cultural resilience and implementing a graduate program in addiction research and treatment options for Indigenous communities.
“I don’t want to oversell liberal arts, but that’s where it begins; you learn to approach problems with different lenses and solutions,” Keene said. “With the evolving healthcare world, we’re seeing interdisciplinary work at the core of everything. Understanding people’s well-being and ability to overcome tough times is connected to much more than one aspect. It’s not just medical, cognitive, behavioral, or genetic; it’s all the things together. With a diverse student body like Fort Lewis’, we get creative ideas and voices rarely heard in health sciences. It majorly impacts how we improve people’s lives in the Four Corners region and beyond.”