Breaking Barriers in Science

posted on August 19, 2013

On a warm summer morning just outside Washington, DC, Red Cloud graduate Cherella Hughes ‘12 is in her lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), examining proteins that could one day identify new treatments for brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A few buildings away, Red Cloud senior Savannah Jensen ‘14 is peering through a microscope at thin slices of brain tissue, assessing whether delicate neurons can be healed to reverse serious nerve damage.

And Danielle Locust ‘08, in her sixth summer studying at NIH, has scrubbed in to brain surgery—but in a few hours will be back in her own lab collecting data on how virus-infected cells respond to a new multiple sclerosis drug.

These young women from Pine Ridge are part of an intensive summer training program for brain and nervous system research at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) at NIH. And for each, the opportunity represents a major step toward attaining their common goal: a career in the sciences.

Red Cloud has spent the last several years investing new and innovative resources into its science program, thanks to countless individuals across the country and a generous grant from the Toyota USA Foundation. Along with a more rigorous curriculum, students now have access to state-of-the-art lab equipment to test their theories and analyze their data. Beyond the classroom walls, Red Cloud science students presented their research at national conferences in New Mexico, Alaska and Arizona, competed in an Intel-sponsored international science fair, and spent their summers pursuing new research at the University of Wisconsin and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, among others. And the results speak for themselves.

“It was like a dream,” says Savannah, recounting what it was like to attend her first national conference of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. “I was exposed to so many educated Native Americans—and that got me excited.”

Although she’s just 18 years old, Savannah knows exactly what she wants to do with her future. “I plan to become a physician.  I really want to help people—to be a family doctor with the Indian Health Service (IHS) here on Pine Ridge.”

Savannah’s science teacher and mentor Wendell Gehman believes she is well on her way. “She’s an amazing student, and an extraordinary example of what our students are capable of achieving, now and in their future careers,” says Wendell, also the chair of Red Cloud’s science department. “Native Americans are vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. We can play a real role in changing that.”

While Savannah is looking forward to finishing her senior year at Red Cloud, Cherella and Danielle are working toward their medical careers in college. All three are thrilled at the idea of breaking barriers in science. But they also remain committed to returning to Pine Ridge to serve their community and their people.

“I care so much about my people and I want to help improve their health,” explains Cherella. She says she was shocked to learn there were no Native pharmacists at the IHS in Pine Ridge, where her mother works as a nurse. It’s an issue she wants to correct through her own career.

Danielle plans to become a doctor—a decision inspired by personal experience. “My dad has rheumatoid arthritis, so I grew up having to take care of him, watching the disease take over,” she says. “Going to the hospital with him motivated me to want to become a doctor. Because of Pine Ridge’s remote location, recruiting doctors to come and stay is a major issue. I want to be a solution. ”

Dr. Rita Devine, assistant director for science administration at NINDS and mentor to Savannah, Cherella and Danielle, knows they will change the medical field for the better.

“Their perseverance and tenacity are impressive, and it will give them a lot of strength if they can meld their Native heritage with western medicine and science,” she says. “I’m as proud as can be of these women—they will be a force to be reckoned with. And with a strong education, they’ll be unstoppable.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Red Cloud Country,
a Red Cloud Indian School seasonal publication

Photo: All Rights Reserved ©Red Cloud Indian School