ND Research Symposium Gains National Stature

The 10th annual Tribal College Research Symposium, held late April in Bismarck, attracted over 100 participants from more than a dozen TCUs and mainstream universities

By Jeremy Guinn

Sitting Bull College student Kenney Pleets shared her research at this year’s Tribal College Research Symposium, held April 24-25 in Bismarck, ND. Photo: Jeremy Guinn

Filtered sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Innovation Space at North Dakota’s Gateway to Science in Bismarck, ND, spotlighting an array of scientific posters, eager and anxious undergraduate and graduate students, and supportive professionals. The 10th Annual Tribal College Research Symposium had attracted participants from ten tribally controlled colleges and universities (TCUs); three mainstream universities; tribal, state, and federal agencies; and collaborators from across the country.

More than 100 participants shared their research results and impacts on tribal communities in projects ranging from biomedical science and traditional medicines, data science, research on leadership perspectives, data analysis for industry, energy and environmental sciences, sustainable agriculture and wildlife biology.

The annual event began as a ND INBRE conference for TCUs in North Dakota. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, INBRE—the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program—supports statewide networks of higher education and research institutions to build biomedical research capacity. However, the symposium has shifted during the past two years to welcome additional sponsors and a broader audience of researchers from any TCU. The sprawling Gateway to Science building, perched on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, was a fitting venue for students who were also reaching new heights.

Co-sponsored by ND INBRE and United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) and hosted by UTTC’s Intertribal Research & Resource Center, the symposium saw diverse representation of institutions from six states and many tribal nations.

Student researchers shared their findings at the symposium’s poster session. Photo: Jeremy Guinn

The event kicked off April 24 with a reception and poster session showcasing the talent of students in the TCUs and partnering institutions. The broad networking and celebration of student research session provided an opportunity for professionals to engage directly with students and for students to see the diversity of research that is occurring at TCUs. The energy and camaraderie built and renewed during this session lasted throughout the symposium and set the stage for the main program.

The next day started with a prayer, song, and opening remarks from UTTC President Dr. Leander “Russ” McDonald, who shared his personal experiences involving the benefits of participating in research and the need for tribal nations to have strong researchers among their people. Dr. Renelda Freeman, director of the Indigenous Research Center at Salish Kootenai College,  provided the keynote address for the symposium. “Dr. Ren” presented on her pathway to developing Indigenous research methods and methodologies (IRM2) and the global effort to understand one’s identity within the research arena.

Keynote speaker Dr. Renelda Freeman, director of the Indigenous Research Center at Salish Kootenai College. Photo: Jeremy Guinn

Two UTTC undergraduate students, K’lona Lofton (Cheyenne River) and James Richards (Oglala Lakota), introduced the morning speakers. Four concurrent sessions provided time for 24 students to present their research in thematic breakout sessions. These talks provided exceptional experiences for the student presenters to receive feedback on their projects and to disseminate their findings to a broad audience.

The lunch session included a presentation from Dr. Jody Chase from the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program and Dr. Jeremy Wojdack from the NSF Biological Sciences Directorate’s BRC-BIO program. They described opportunities to propose projects that build institutional and faculty capacity in STEM. The symposium culminated with a Science Café session that examined the pathways of two graduate students. Sheridan McNeil (ND EPSCoR) moderated the session for Tyrell Iron Eyes, now Tribal Archaeologist for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and Mahmoud Elayyan, current graduate student at the University of North Dakota.

Breadth and Innovation

The symposium emphasized the diversity of needs in tribal communities that are being addressed through STEM research and design. A  few examples of projects presented at the symposium illustrate the innovative research taking place:

  • Edwina Leslie (Dept. of Engineering, Navajo Technical College) discussed applications of smart portable cooling systems for delivery of medicine in Navajo Nation.
  • Elia Paulson (Cankdeska Cikana Community College) presented on PFAS in drinking and surface water on Spirit Lake Nation.
  • Elena Rodriguez (Environmental Science Department, Sitting Bull College) shared her project on climate change impacts on a single water body on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
  • Marshall Smith (Department of Environmental Science, United Tribes Technical College revealed results from looking at the biodegradative potential of oyster mushrooms on plastic pollution. Shyanna LaRocque described research on pre-eclampsia.
  • Nelofar Nargis (Department of Pathology, UND) showed dramatic results of a specific drug combination treatments for bladder cancer cells.
  • Eva Waddell (Math, Science, and Technology Department, Oglala Lakota College) identified a predictive model of Tinpsinla habitat on Yankton Sioux Reservation.
  • Bobbi Frederick (Teachers College, Arizona State University) summarized a project on Indigenous artwork’s role in healing and identity development.
  • Kacey Murdock (Environmental Science Department, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College) described her project on Juneberry propagation and reestablishment.

It Takes a Village

Undergraduate research is enhanced by consistent mentoring and support from faculty members and professionals from agencies and organizations. Research mentors play critical roles in students’ lives by encouraging students’ own perceptions of capabilities and career options. Support at those critical junctions contribute to a student moving forward in their projects and with their studies. The symposium showcased both student work and the wealth of mentoring and collaborations that make these projects possible. 

Tribal college faculty mentors and co-authors included:

  • Cankdeska Cikana Community College: Brent Voels
  • Navajo Technical University: Peter Romine, Sundaram Arumugam, Darrick Lee, Abraham Meles
  • Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College: Kerry Hartman, Audrey LaVallie, Lori Nelson, Jessica Uran, Joe Reum
  • Oglala Lakota College: Camille Griffith, Dana Gehring
  • Salish Kootenai College: Tim Ryan
  • Sitting Bull College: Renae Schmitt, Francis Onduso, Dan Buresh, Mafany Mongoh
  • Turtle Mountain Community College: Lyle Best,
  • United Tribes Technical College: Mandy Guinn, Ram Hona, Alexa Azure, Jessica Logan, Emily Biggane
  • White Earth Tribal and Community College: Allen Derks

University faculty mentors and co-authors included:

  • Arizona State University: Mary Lou Fulton
  • California Lutheran University: Gabrielle Names
  • California State University – Chico: Priya Tuvell
  • Harvard University: Yan Liu, Robinson Tom, David Weitz
  • Michigan State University: Xinyi Wang, Jiangshan He, Faith Cherop, Paul Gueye
  • New Mexico Technical University: Ranalda Tsosie
  • North Dakota State University: Samuel Lane, Britt Heidinger
  • The Evergreen State University: Alec Anderson
  • University of Colorado-Boulder: Nathan Quarderer
  • University of Idaho: Ambrea Sam, Harold Garcia,
  • University of Minnesota – Morris: Abigail Rehbein
  • University of North Dakota: Sarmad Al-Marsoummi, Scott Garrett, Donald Sens, Seema Somji, Rebecca Simmons, Aaron Mehus, Alexis Archambault

Industry and agency mentors and co-authors included:

  • Ducks Unlimited, Inc.: Catrina Terry
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Andrew Klesh, Russel Smith, Kristian Stone
  • Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen): Bethany Davis

Expanding Research Capacity at TCUs

The goal of the Tribal College Research Symposium is to showcase the diversity of research being conducted by TCU students and build collaborations through learning and networking with peers and colleagues. The 10th Annual TCRS attained all these goals and exceeded expectations of participation. With the support of federal agencies, the vision of TCU leadership, and dedication of TCU STEM faculty and students, TCUs are rapidly developing STEM programs and research which addresses the needs of their communities and regions, while preparing a strong and diverse STEM workforce. The 11th Annual TCRS is being planned for April 2025. Watch for announcements in the fall. Abstracts will be due in early spring.

United Tribes Technical College President Russ McDonald speaking on the role of research in tribal nations. Photo: Jeremy Guinn

Below: Photos taken by multiple symposium participants capture the lively exchanges taking place during the poster session.

Jeremy Guinn is director of the Intertribal Research & Resource Center at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND.

Story published May 9, 2024

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