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U. of I. workshop aims to introduce genomics to Native American students

2/21/2011 | Sharita Forresst, News Editor | 217-244-1072;

[ Email | Share ] CHAMPAIGN,Ill. — Since the mapping of the human genome about a decade ago, genomic science has emerged as a tool in solving criminal mysteries, the riddles of parentage and human migration, and the puzzles of diseases.

 For Native American scholars, the applications, limitations and ethical considerations of genetic research are especially salient, and a six-day workshop at the University of Illinois will offer Native American students the opportunity to explore genetic research and participate in discussions with leading scientists about issues relevant to indigenous communities.

The Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics, July 10-16, will introduce 20 Native American students to the theoretical and practical concepts and the methods of genomics and bioinformatics. Participants will receive hands-on training using state-of-the-art laboratory equipment and analytical programs at the Institute for Genomic Biology on the U. of I.’s Urbana campus.

Participants will explore how genomics is being used as a tool in projects related to natural resources, history and biomedicine. The primary focus of the curriculum will be issues relevant to Native American communities, such as the incorporation of indigenous cultural values, histories of Native American encounters with science and scientific methods.

Established in 2003, the IGB is the site of pioneering research in bioenergy, critical climate change studies, and promising work in regenerative medicine, drug development, and understanding cancer at the cellular level. The institute has seven labs and core facilities with the latest in microscopy, imaging, and bioanalysis technologies.

Many of the workshop advisory board members are leading Native American scientists, who will be teaching in the workshop or leading discussions. The advisory board members hope that connecting students with Native American scientists will inspire more Native American students to enter the sciences and seek leadership positions.

Recent high-profile legal cases such as the Havasupai Tribe’s lawsuit against Arizona State University over the misuse of blood samples given for a study of diabetes and several tribes’ legal battle with scientists over the Kennewick Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton unearthed in Washington during 1996, “may foster the misimpression that Native Americans are anti-science or that there have been no positive collaborations among Native communities and researchers,” said Ripan Malhi, a professor of anthropology and of animal biology at Illinois, who is the workshop’s organizer.

Malhi, who has worked primarily with First Nation tribes in British Columbia to study population history and European-Native American admixture, said that although he has had many positive working relationships with Native American communities, on occasion he’s also met with distrust from some Native people whose previous encounters with anthropologists were not constructive.
“Such situations need to be avoided, and the best way to do that is to have individuals within the community that can perform these types of studies on their own,” Malhi said. “And if they need to collaborate with outside scientists, it’s not a situation where the outside research has all the scientific knowledge.”

Kim TallBear, a member of the workshop’s advisory board and a professor of science, technology and environmental policy in the Division of Society and Environment at the University of California at Berkeley, has written extensively about the intersection of Native values and genetic science and the democratization of science and research policy.

 TallBear, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate nation, was raised on a reservation in South Dakota.

 “I’ve always been concerned that if there’s going to be genetic research within indigenous communities that it be collaborative because a lot of the work that I do is concerned with historically extractive research and with who gets to manage biological samples and make property claims and who benefits from research and how,” TallBear said.

“Before I was an academic, I was a community and environmental planner, and I was always interested in how tribes are incorporating science and technology into tribal governance,” TallBear said. “Tribes are pretty interested in expanding their sovereignty and their governing authorities by incorporating more science into their tribal programs. They get more legitimacy if they develop tribal environmental programs. They can create employment on the reservation, monitor their own environment and create educational opportunities.”

Students of Native descent from anywhere in the Americas, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and members of the Canadian First Nation or Metis communities are eligible to apply for the SING workshop. Applicants must provide documentation of their Native ancestry, a 200-word summary of their education or other relevant experiences, their curriculum vitae and a 500-word essay stating their purpose in attending the workshop.

The deadline for applications is March 15.

More about the SING workshop, the complete list of advisory board members, documentation requirements and an online application are on the Web.

Sponsors of the SING workshop include the National Science Foundation; the Graduate College, and the School of Integrative Biology; and three departments: animal biology, anthropology, and natural resources and environmental sciences.

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