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Biomedical education, training program blasts off at Iḷisaġvik

January 30th, 2015 | By Elise Patkotak Print this article   Email this article  

BLaST (Biomedical Learning and Student Training) is a program funded by the National Institutes of Health. The grant of $23.8 million to the University of Alaska Fairbanks is designed to cover a five-year period for the purpose of engaging rural students in science, in this case specifically biomedical research. Iḷisaġvik College is a partner with UAF and University of Alaska Southeast in executing the goals of the grant.

Although the term sounds as though it refers to something that only occurs in labs, in actual fact biomedical research has very real and relevant applications on the North Slope. Any change in the environment can potentially cause a change in the food chain on which practitioners of subsistence depend.

This was already seen on the North Slope decades ago when federal researchers went to Anaktuvuk Pass every summer for many years to study radiation in lichens caused by the fallout of above ground nuclear tests in the 1950s. Since caribou eat lichen and the Iñupiat eat caribou as one of their primary subsistence foods, the concern was that high radiation levels in lichens could eventually make its way up the food chain to humans.

The goal of this grant is to encourage rural and bush students to study science by showing how biomedical research can detect potential future problems as climate change and pollution affect the very smallest levels of the subsistence food chain. Another goal is to integrate teaching and research in higher education.

Iḷisaġvik, through Linda Nicholas-Figueroa, Assistant Professor of Biology and Chemistry, and Dr. Rebekah Hare, Adjunct Professor at Iḷisaġvik, has submitted a proposal to the NIH-funded BLaST program that would fund a research project to enable two students to study some of the microbes in the ground on the North Slope. Given the warming climate and its dramatic effects already being felt in the Arctic, this project would provide a baseline of data on these microbes so that future research could ascertain how climate change is affecting the food chain in the Arctic. It has already received one level of funding approval and is now awaiting final approval from the NIH.

Students participating in the grant will receive college credit. High school students may also apply and will receive dual credit upon successful completion of the class.

Whether or not the separate grant written by Hare and Nicholas-Figueroa is funded, the partnership with UAF means that classes will be offered in Methods of Molecular Biology with extra credits given if the student also signs up for independent research.

Dr. Barbara Taylor, director of undergraduate research and scholarly activity at UAF, Arleigh Reynolds, Associate Dean of the UAF Department of Veterinary Medicine, and Karsten Hueffer, associate professor of Microbiology UAF are spearheading this effort in conjunction with Nicholas-Figueroa and Amanda Sialofi, Allied Health director from Iḷisaġvik.

A goal of the BLaST program is to generate interest in health-related research among rural students who live in areas where subsistence is still the primary lifestyle.

What happens at the tiniest of levels of existence can work its way up the food chain and affect all animals and people. Dr. Taylor reiterated that the program was very flexible and can be tailored to what people in rural areas are most interested in studying.

The NIH grant is located in the newly formed Department of Veterinary Medicine at UAF. It is located there because of the interest those students have in the connection between animal and human health. This idea is not new on the North Slope. Some older residents might remember almost 40 years ago when the first Public Health Officer hired by the newly formed Borough Health Department was a veterinarian, Dr. Les Dalton, crossed-trained in public health issues by the U.S. Navy.

Iḷisaġvik President Pearl Brower feels that this program shows "just how much Iḷisaġvik is integral to the future of the North Slope. Not only are we educating our residents for the future, but while they are getting that education, they are already contributing to the knowledge we will need to maintain our subsistence lifestyle. I am hoping that we end up with a big pool of interested applicants for this exciting new program."

For more information on BLaST or any other courses being offered by Iḷisaġvik, contac Linda Nicholas-Figueroa by phone (410-812-0534) or Contact Amanda Sialofi at


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