The Billings Outpost

Child abuse a daily problem here, speaker says

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

Midway through National Child Abuse Prevention Month, local doctor Eric Arzubi reminded Billings residents that child abuse is a very real problem in Billings.

“Every single day, I see multiple kids come through our emergency room dealing with the consequences of being abused and neglected,” Arzubi said. “So every time you go by Billings Clinic, remember that there were three, four or five kids that went in there that day due to these problems. And remember long after this month is over that this is a very real problem in our city. In fact, it’s more than a problem. It’s a crisis.”

Arzubi, who has worked as a child psychiatrist at Billings Clinic since 2013, was the keynote speaker at the seventh annual Pinwheels for Prevention event on the lawn of the Yellowstone Country Courthouse last Thursday. County Commissioner Bill Kennedy and a representative of Sen. Jon Tester were among the 40 people in attendance at the event sponsored by the Family Tree Center.

Through his work experience, Arzubi has seen firsthand that abuse and neglect can negatively affect children for the rest of their lives. These effects can include mental health issues such as anxiety and PTSD, but can also be manifested late in life in the form of physical ailments such as heart disease, liver disease and COPD. Victims of neglect and abuse are also more likely to abuse drugs, drop out of school, have teenage pregnancies and commit suicide.

Child abuse is indeed a problem in Montana and across the country. Over 1 million children are affected across the United States and there were 3,675 substantiated cases of child abuse in Montana during Fiscal Year 2014. Of those, 562 were in Yellowstone County.

Arzubi acknowledged that there is no easy fix to these problems. Rather, he said that it can only be fixed one family at a time by parents who are proactive in the lives of their children.

“There is no medication that fixes this,” Arzubi said. “The solution needs to be found in the family system – it always has and always will be.”

Arzubi argued that the most important step in the fight against child abuse will occur when parents realize that they don’t have to be perfect, and that it’s OK to find help through reading parenting books and attending seminars.

“We need to destigmatize looking for help,” Arzubi said. “I need help as a father every day and I’m a child psychiatrist. I’ve studied this stuff a lot and know all there is to know about parenting. But I’ve screwed up every single day as a parent. We all need help every day. It’s hard to raise a kid – let alone two or three or four.”

Arzubi also encouraged parents to recognize their failures and to not blame the child for the problems in the family.

“Stop pointing at the kid,” he said. “What’s happening in the kid is likely a reflection of what’s going on in the family. Start by looking at yourself as a parent and seeing what you can do to improve. It’s hard to do. It sucks to admit that you’re making mistakes, but it is incredibly worthwhile.”

Stacy Dreessen, executive director of the Family Tree Center, agreed with Arzubi and said that simple preventative measures like the ones mentioned pay off in the long run.

“Without recognition and intervention, abuse experienced by children may result in long-term disease, disability, social problems and early death,” Dreessen said. “So prevention can eliminate those human factors as well as the costly monetary factors that accompany them. For every one dollar spent in prevention, $10 are spent in interventions.”

After Arzubi’s speech, Dreessen presented Christy Mamman with the Family Tree Center’s Blue Ribbon award, which honors outstanding child abuse prevention efforts.

Mamman is a single mother of two boys who has volunteered with the Family Tree Center  for the past 10 years and has recently been a driving force behind the Tree Center’s annual Festival of Trees fundraiser. She recently joined the Tree Center’s Board of Directors.

The chief event of the afternoon occurred at the beginning of the hour-long ceremony as the attendees planted a “garden” filled with dozens of blue pinwheels.

“The reason we plant pinwheels every April is that a pinwheel is a whimsical child’s toy,” Dreessen said. “As such, it’s really a symbol of a happy, healthy childhood and that’s what every child deserves.”

The Family Tree Center has been providing services to support and strengthen families in Yellowstone County since 1985. The center offers home visits, parent education, respite child care services, violence prevention programs and bullying prevention programs.

It is located at 2520 Fifth Ave. S. For more information, go to or call 252-9799.


Last Updated on Thursday, 23 April 2015 15:28

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MSU Billings honors students

MSU Billings News Services

Montana State University Billings honored students, organizations and staff last week during the annual Leadership Recognition Program awards banquet held at the Billings Depot.

Nikki Lund was named Outstanding President of the Year for her work with the Gender Studies Club, a student group whose mission is to bring inclusive, diverse discussions to the campus and students of Montana State University Billings while raising awareness of gender issues.

The Gender Studies Club swept the award for Outstanding Academic and Departmental Organization as well as the Outstanding Organization award.

Senior Leadership awards were given to Audrey Econom and Arthur Cherry.

The Outstanding Academic Leadership award went to international student Baudry Metangmo, of Douala in Cameroon, Africa.

Ladies basketball forward player Quinn Peoples took the Athletic Leadership Award.

Health Educators Reaching Others & Encouraging Success (HEROES) took the award for Outstanding Leadership and Programming Organization and its member Reba Borden was named Outstanding Member of an Organization.

Outstanding Residential Leader awards went to Ashely Merical, Connor Ralph, Cody Cooper and Landi Wilson. Overseeing these recipients, Alison Adams received the Outstanding Advisor Award for her work with the Residence Hall Association.

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 April 2015 15:26

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RMC student launches no ‘R-word’ campaign

Jami Williamson, left, Joey Lucara, LeAnn Dolly-Powell and Emily Schaff work together on projects.For Rocky Mountain College freshman Emily Schaff, a brief meeting with representatives from Special Olympics turned into a collaboration that has launched a number of new initiatives for students at RMC.

During this initial meeting, Schaff met Jami Williamson, the Region 2 Outreach Director for Special Olympics Montana. Schaff expressed her interest in working with Special Olympics and providing opportunities for RMC students. This initiated the planning of “Pledge Day for Spread the Word to End the Word.”

“Spread the Word to End the Word” is a non-profit organization that raises awareness about the derogatory use of the word “retard(ed)” and promotes not using the word in such a way.

The National R-Word Pledge Day took place over RMC’s Spring Break, so R-Word Pledge Day for the Rocky community followed a week later on March 11, 2015. Schaff worked in collaboration with Special Olympics Montana and RMC’s Lunch Out Loud program to set up a pledge table during lunchtime in the student center of RMC. Special Olympics Montana provided a large poster, where students, faculty, and staff could sign their name to make the pledge to not use the “R-Word” in a derogatory way. There was also an opportunity for students to sign up for the Yellowstone Valley Area Games for Special Olympics Montana, which are taking place April 24-25.

“I think it’s important for people to understand why the r-word, retard(ed), is offensive and unnecessary,” said Schaff. She explained how this derogatory term has an even closer meaning to her, as she is the younger sister of a special needs brother. “From my perspective, I find it very offensive because my brother isn’t a stupid person at all.”

“Overall, I think it’s important to teach people that if you want to say something is stupid, say it’s stupid, or dumb, or idiotic, or any other word that is an actual synonym for stupid,” added Schaff. “There’s no need to put people down who can’t control certain things about themselves just so you can look cool or fit in.”

Schaff explained that one of her two older brothers was born deaf with physical characteristics of an autistic individual. She described how her brother taught himself how to use smart phones, computers, and other forms of technology. “Honestly, most of the time he teaches us,” she added.

“Just because my brother is special needs, it doesn’t mean that he should be seen as an individual who isn’t capable of anything,” said Schaff. “The same goes to all other special needs individuals out there.”

During the Pledge Day, Schaff and Special Olympics Montana collected 78 signatures from those who promised not to use the r-word in a derogative manner.

However, Schaff doesn’t plan to stop there. “My future plans with Special Olympics as an individual and as a student assistant for the Office of Community Involvement and Office of Spiritual Life include to be the Special Olympics representative for Rocky Mountain College and be more involved in local activities taking place.”

“For the next academic year, we are looking at recruiting individuals to volunteer at area events in addition to the Area Games,” added Schaff. “We will also invite people to create teams to participate in the Polar Plunge, which is a fundraiser event for the local Special Olympics.” She also plans to make the Pledge Day for Spread the Word to End the Word Day an annual event at RMC.

Schaff is also working with Special Olympics Montana to create an SO College on the RMC campus, which would provide opportunities for students and employees to volunteer and help plan future events for the Special Olympics.

As part of her 20th birthday wish, Schaff also set up aGoFundMe page at In lieu of collecting presents for her 20th birthday, Schaff asked for donations to  present to the Special Olympics organization during the Pledge Day at RMC. Her goal was $304 (representing her birthday March 4th). On March 11, Schaff gave the Special Olympics program a check for $400 raised through her page.

“Having a special needs brother, I’m forever grateful for organizations like Special Olympics that allow individuals on various levels to compete and be involved on a community level,” said Schaff.

Kim Woeste, RMC’s chaplain and director of spiritual life and church Relations, said, “I can’t say enough good things about Emily. She is truly an exceptional student. I have a great deal of respect for her dedication to volunteering. She is committed to being involved and making a difference in the community, and she motivates others to do the same.”

“To me, it’s inspiring to watch Emily work,” added Woeste. “She organizes service projects and supports partnerships with agencies in town because she cares deeply. Whether it’s with the HUB, Special Olympics, Ronald McDonald House, or with any one of the numerous other agencies we’ve worked with, she’s invested in the success of their efforts.”

“At Rocky Mountain College, I think we strive to provide opportunities for students to find a niche, to excel, and to grow in leadership. Emily exemplifies the best of what a student leader can accomplish in a supportive learning environment,” said Woeste.

Currently, Schaff is recruiting volunteers for the Yellowstone Valley Area Games on April 24-25. To sign up, or for more information, visit, or contact Schaff at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 10:53

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Young scientists show their work at fair here

By BRAD MOLNAR - For The Outpost

Over the weekend the Billings Clinic hosted its 27th consecutive science exposition, allowing 415 students from 60 schools across Eastern Montana to explore the question of their choice and show their results. This year’s science competition was held at Montana State University Billings.

The top award in the high school division is an all-expense paid trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburg, Pa. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Montana’s best and brightest to compete against the best in the nation or even the world.

All first- through 12th-grade students in Eastern Montana were allowed to compete, at no cost to them, for prizes and awards totaling $15,000.

This money was made available through donations of science-focused people, organizations and companies in and around the Billings area.

When asked why they donate so heavily, Billings Clinic spokeswoman Arianne Snyder replied, “They know how important it is to our future and the future of their companies to encourage and promote interest in the sciences.”

The competition is based not just on the science pursued but also the ability of the budding scientists to give a “stand alone” presentation of their project to a team of judges. The judges then give feedback on the investigative process chosen and their presentation skills.

Practical research questions included “What type of arrow head flies truest?”, “Does the more expensive RV toilet paper bio-degrade more quickly?”, “Which gender has the best color perception and at what age is it most acute?” and the quintessential “Do video games rot your brain?”

The entry by Jack Quandt, fourth-grader at St. Francis Intermediate School, won the Best Plant Science Project Grades 1-6. This special industry award (one-year family pass to ZooMontana) was for his exploration into which homemade additives make a Christmas tree stay fresher longer. He quantified his findings by developing a stress test to monitor the progress of drying as the cut trees aged.  

The trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, May 10-15, was won by Tyler Stenson, homeschooler, grade 11 of Billings. His research was titled, “The effects of crystallization in the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge.” Once there he will compete against 1,700 high school students from more than 70 countries, regions and territories similarly awarded for their independent research and compete for more than $5 million in prizes and scholarships.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:34

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MSU sets enrollment record

MSU News Service

BOZEMAN – For the seventh time in as many years, Montana State University has set an enrollment record for spring semester with 14,323 students enrolled at the university.

MSU’s colleges of engineering, agriculture and business led the growth. Engineering was the university’s fastest-growing college, registering eight percent growth from the previous spring and 20 percent growth over the last two years. It was followed closely by the MSU College of Agriculture, with 6 percent growth over the previous year; and the MSU Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, with 5 percent growth.

Overall, the university’s enrollment was up 221 students from 2014’s spring enrollment of 14,102 students.

It also represents a growth of 623 students over the past two years; MSU’s spring enrollment in 2013 was 13,700 students.

MSU continues to be the largest university in the state of Montana. To address its growth, MSU is seeking funding from the Montana Legislature to renovate its Romney Hall for classrooms, student study space and a new veteran’s center.

The last large-scale state renovation of a campus building at MSU was in 2007 for Gaines Hall. Since then, the university has grown by 3,251 students, or nearly 27 percent.

The 93-year-old Romney Hall sits in the campus’ core and is currently unusable or marginally usable. The Montana Board of Regents placed the Romney renovation as the number one building priority for the university system.

Last Updated on Saturday, 04 April 2015 10:32

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Top officers selected in MSU Billings vote

MSU Billings News Services

Sonja Choriki and Baudry Metangmo have been elected to serve as president and vice president of Associated Students of MSU Billings.

Ms. Choriki will succeed departing president Daniel Barnhart, and Mr. Metangmo will replace Choriki’s position as vice president.

“Daniel and I did a lot of changes this year,” said Ms. Choriki. “I want to follow through with what we started, and still there is a lot I want to see get done. We accomplished everything that we wanted to, but I want to see more cooperation within organizations, teamwork and see to it that new student organizations are successful.”  

Of the 4,323 enrolled students, 8 percent of MSUB’s student body cast votes.

Of the 344 votes cast, 165 were in favor of Choriki and Metangmo over contenders Jessica Hahne and Molly Markus, and David Fredrickson and Joseph Wyatt, both parties receiving 78 votes.

Choriki and Metangmo will oversee a $275,000 budget and seven student organizations for the 2015-16 school year.

Billings native Choriki, 22, is a senior studying criminal justice and has been involved in student senate for four years. She is the daughter of Tony Choriki and Scott and Paulette West.

Baudry Metangmo, 21, of Douala in Cameroon, Africa, is a junior majoring in mathematics with minors in chemistry and physics. He works as a resident assistant for Rimrock Hall. He is the son of Michel and Veronique Tsafack.

Seven senators have been voted to represent the MSU Billings campus. They are business major Chelsie Coomber, of Billings; health and human performance major and coaching minor Greg Dicharry, of Willows, Calif.; political science major Katelyn Focht, of Billings; business management major Alan Loomis, of Billings; business management major Rachel McKinney, of Billings; criminal justice and sociology double major Wyatt Powell, of Monument, Colo.; and mathematics and secondary education major Alex Shin, of Billings. City College will be represented by Sen. Kyla Chamberlain, a Billings freshman studying radiology.


Last Updated on Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:10

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Students design prosthetic leg for dog

By DEB REDBURN - MSU News Service

BOZEMAN – Students in Montana State University’s department of education technology education program tackled a new and challenging project last semester when they were tasked with designing and engineering a prosthetic leg for a dog.

The students’ professor, Lidia Haughey, challenged nine students in a senior capstone class, “Manufacturing and Designing,” to design and fabricate a prosthetic hind leg for Anni, Haughey’s Doberman pinscher. In the process, the students learned valuable skills that should provide benefits in their future jobs, Haughey said.

Students divided into three groups for the project and examined the project from different angles. For example, students in one group explored the biomechanics of the dog’s stride. They observed how Anni walked and compensated for the lack of a hind leg. The students also measured the compression on Anni’s joints to see how much the prosthesis needed to bend.

Ben Butts, a senior from Kalispell, said when one plan didn’t work, the students would re-evaluate and try something else.

“The hours that we spent just looking at other types of dog prosthetics and making changes to our original design on paper was huge,” said Butts. “Then we moved into creating a tangible leg and made modification after modification to ensure comfort, while making sure the leg still worked correctly.”

What’s more, the project stuck with the students, even outside of class, one of them said.

“Sometimes I would wake up in the night trying to figure out a problem,” said student Mike Robbins.

The teams used different materials to construct their products, including a variety of metals, plastics, shocks from bicycles and remote control cars, and straps from backpacks and harnesses. Businesses in the community, including REI and Bangtail Bike and Ski, donated some of the materials.

“Each group had to research what was already out there (animal prosthetics), create a business plan, talk to experts in the field, and finally create the prosthesis,” she said.

Haughey said a final challenge is determining how to keep the prosthesis attached to the dog. Haughey plans to challenge her next capstone class to continue the project and find a solution.

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:09

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Hi-Line childhood sparks Haaland’s imagination


Tami Haaland was 16 when she saw a Calgary Opera Company production of “La Traviata” in Chester, courtesy of the Chester Arts Council.

It made a big impression on her, and it helps explain why she has spent so much of her adult life bringing the arts into the lives of others.

Besides being an English professor at Montana State University Billings for the past 20 years, she has directed a poets-in-the-schools program for Arts Without Boundaries, put on numerous writing workshops and taught creative writing and literature in the Montana Women’s Prison for five years.

And for the past year and a half, as the official poet laureate for the state of Montana, she has made herself available, she said, “to talk about poetry in whatever way people wanted me to talk about poetry.”

Mostly, she wants people to become aware of the liberating power of words. She experienced that power vividly when she taught creative writing at the women’s prison. She would have the women write stories, then invite them to revise their writing, to change their stories.

“It was very exciting because it was the moment of possibly taking control of some of the details of the story in written form that they might be able to transfer outward later on,” she said.

Haaland said she uses the same  teaching methods regardless of setting. It’s all about encouraging people to think about how they can express themselves.

“Obviously, with younger people, there aren’t as many barriers,” she said. “They haven’t encountered the difficulties, perhaps, or the voices that encourage them to shut down their imaginations.”

She knows how fortunate she was to have grown up on a Hi-Line wheat farm south of Inverness, which is just east of Chester on Highway 2.

“The beauty of the Hi-Line is that you don’t have a lot of people telling you you can’t do things,” she said. “It’s not like there are a lot of people around who are doing things so much better than you that they’re telling you you can’t do it.”

There was also the freedom to roam and explore. The Marias River was three miles south of her family’s farm, and she and “a pack of cousins and friends” would sometimes spend the whole day just walking to the river and back, wandering, playing, imagining. She remembers finding marine fossils, and once she dug a bison skull out of a riverbank.

In an essay about Haaland in “These Living Songs: Reading Montana Poetry,” published last year by the University of Montana Press, co-authors Danell Jones and the late Sue Hart wrote about “the language of dry wind” that Haaland mentions in one of her poems.

Haaland, having listened so closely to the sounds and rhythms of the prairie, “aches for the magical melody she can never reproduce,” they wrote. In a nice play on a familiar phrase, they also said that, “For Haaland, a primal yearning for the best lost place defines our human condition.”

Also formative was the constant presence of music in Haaland’s home. Her father played in a dance band, The Ragtime Five, in the 1940s, and when she was growing up, her father and uncle and brothers and friends often played music in their house.

“They all played by ear and knew so many songs,” she said. “I remember my mother shuffling us off to bed when we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, and the music would just go on into the night.”

Music is an important part of Haaland’s teaching method. At the beginning of her creative writing classes, she said, she asks how many of her students love poetry. Usually a few hands go up. Many more are raised when she asks how many of them hate poetry.

So she asks them to think about how their moods change, often unconsciously, when they listen to music, based on the tone of a particular song, its repetitions, its rhythms. And then she helps them work their way through a poem, trying to show them that a poem can affect them in the same way.

“All of them love music, right? So I hope it’s not too far of a reach for them to come to understand that they don’t need to hate poetry, that it is very much akin to things they love.”

Haaland confesses to worrying about the omnipresent electronic devices her students carry, to listen to their music, to keep in touch, to stay constantly wired. There are advantages, obviously, she said, but disadvantages, too.

“I think kids and adults both need contemplative time, and so, given the propensity for interference, I think we have to deliberately make that.”

For her, that means walking on the Rims without a phone. Better yet, if she goes back to the Hi-Line and goes on those walks she took as a child, it doesn’t matter if she brings her phone because most of the area is still blessedly without cell service.

Haaland graduated from Inverness High School in 1978, in a class of four. A few years later the high school closed, and students from Inverness and nearby Joplin now attend school in Chester. Haaland looks forward to a half-day visit to the Chester schools at the end of the month, where she plans to conduct writing workshops with fifth- through eighth-graders first and then with high-schoolers.

She has traveled all over the state since being named the fifth Montana poet laureate in 2013. Her term ends in August. She said she has had to turn down a few engagements because of scheduling conflicts, but otherwise “I tried to do whatever people asked.”

Her second year as poet laureate has been particularly busy because last May she was named chair of the English, philosophy and modern languages department at MSU Billings, where she has been an English professor since 1994.

Jones, a friend of Haaland’s and a colleague in the English department, said Haaland “not only brings a wonderful voice to Montana poetry, but she explores the hidden depths of ordinary lives. She writes about the West, but she never romanticizes it. She looks for the mystery and secrets of dry prairie land and railroad towns, teenage girls and middle-aged women.”

Even after her time as poet laureate is over, Haaland said she wants to continue bringing the state’s many talented writers to the state’s many small towns.

“Having this kind of circulation going on would be so valuable,” she said. “I would love to see this happen, but it’s more complicated than a two-year term could bring to fruition.”

She wants to continue emphasizing the importance of the arts, which tend to get cast aside in this pragmatic world. The arts build empathy, she said, and they teach young people to see nuance and complexity, “which is much different than just taking a test … . They are so primary to our humanity, so important for young people as a means of expression.”

Here is one of her poems, “As If.”


As if she needed to wrangle words

into a semblance, as if sustenance


were a simple matter, a sandwich

day after day and nothing more. As if


it were enough, and logic

would not erode. As if she could


still manage once time had disappeared

and space jigsawed into impossible puzzles.


Those aren’t my fingers, she might say

of the writing hand turned in upon itself.


Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:18

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POSTCARD gets donation

Recognizing the success of Camp POSTCARD (Peace Officers Striving to Create and Reinforce Dreams), Phillips 66 has awarded a grant of $8,000  to the Camp, operated by the Volunteers of America Camp each summer.

“We believe the kids at Camp POSTCARD enjoy a transformational experience and it is a worthy investment in our communities,” said Shea Dawson, Phillips 66 Finance and Public Affairs Manager. “The interaction between the kids and peace officers is remarkable.”

The Camp is structured to build a trusting and long-term bond between the children who attend camp and the counselors. The counselors are law enforcement and school resource officers from the children’s respective counties. The premise is that these relationships, which are established early in the youths’ lives, will prevent future at-risk behavior and subsequent negative lifelong consequences.

“This grant shows Phillips 66 is committed to youth programs that provide valuable lessons for our kids today that will continue into the future. Camp POSTCARD builds trusting relationships and longstanding rapport between children attending camp and law enforcement officials who serve as counselors,” said Dan Burkhart, VOANR community affairs director.

Law enforcement and school resource officers handpick fifth- and sixth-grade students from their communities to attend Camp POSTCARD. Camp is offered in both Montana and Wyoming each year. This is the fifth year for Montana’s Camp. A total of 139 campers, 10 junior mentors, 46 officers, 18 national guardsmen, Volunteers of America staff, and volunteers make Camp a success.

For information contact Burkhart at 252-4118 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:27

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Minority science students motivated by altruism


BOZEMAN – A study conducted by a group of scientists at Montana State University and California State University, Long Beach, has found that students from underrepresented minority groups are more likely to pursue scientific or research careers in biosciences if they believe the careers will in some way help them give back to their home communities.

The study, “The Role of Altruistic Values in Motivating Underrepresented Minority Students for Biomedicine,” was published in the January issue of the journal BioScience. Co-authors were Jessi L. Smith and Elizabeth R. Brown, both then researchers with the MSU department of psychology, Allen G. Harmsen, a research scientist affiliated with the MSU department of microbiology and immunology, and Andrew Z. Mason and Dustin B. Thoman of California State University, Long Beach.

Thoman is with the department of psychology and Mason with the department of biological sciences.

Smith, who was the principal investigator of the study, will co-present the research with Thoman at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February.

“Scientific research has a reputation as all about the ‘Ah Ha’ moment, to discover something for the sake of wanting to know the answer,” Smith said. “While certainly that is important, if that discovery has implications in some way for benefiting society – however remote – than this captures and holds students interest. Science is very much a field that has broad impact, but too often students don’t see this connection.”

The study grew out of a nearly $1 million, four-year grant that Smith received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study Latino and Native American student research assistants and their persistence within biomedicine. Smith said the grant, which is now in its last year, sought to examine how Latino and Native American undergraduates’ perceived levels of cultural connection to research influenced their motivation, or lack of motivation, to pursue biomedical careers and graduate study.

This is important, Smith said, because “understanding how to enhance the diversity of the biomedical field is paramount to the success and health of the nation and the world.”

She added that this type of research is needed because of the dearth of scientists with ethnically diverse backgrounds. Data from the National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resource Statistics, shows that of among the 597,000 college graduates employed in biological life/ medical sciences fields in 2010, only 0.2 percent were American Indian, 2.7 percent were African-American and 4.9 percent were Latino. Conversely, 70.9 percent where White, 19.4 percent Asian. An additional 1.5 percent reported multiple race background.

Early in the study’s process Smith and Thoman, both trained psychologists, sought the advice of Harmsen and Mason, both biomedical scientists.

The research team speculated that students who belong to groups considered underrepresented minorities in the sciences, such as Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans, would be more likely to be interested in bioscience as a career if mentors linked the work they did in the laboratory to the students’ cultural values. Likewise, they would be positively motivated if they believed their biomedical career would help give back to their communities, which is what the authors call an “altruistic” motivation. They also speculated that the students would be more motivated for altruistic values than by such things as potential income earned.

“We predicted that seeing how research can potentially affect society and help one’s community would not replace typical motives for scientific discovery, such as passion, curiosity, achievement, which are important for all students,” Smith said. “But, altruistic value might be more important in the scheme of things.” 

To test their theories, they studied research assistants working with more than 30 bioscience faculty members at several tribal colleges in Montana and two universities by asking students to answer a series of questionnaires over two years. A control group of White students answered the same questionnaires.

Smith’s group discovered that the research assistants from underrepresented minority groups who saw the altruistic values of conducting biomedical research that would benefit their community felt more involved with their research over time, which, ultimately enhanced their interest in pursuing a scientific research career.

“Everyone benefits from seeing the altruistic benefits of their work,” Smith said. “But, these altruistic motives are uniquely influential to students (with ethnic minority heritage) and appear to play an important role in influencing their interest in scientific research careers and in pursing advanced graduate education.”

She said the findings point to simple strategies for educators, training directors and faculty mentors to improve retention among undergraduate students from underrepresented minorities in biomedicine and the related sciences.

“Mentors can spend time in lab meetings, for example, communicating with students or assigning students to projects that help them to identify the societal or communal benefits of their laboratory experiences in a personal and culturally meaningful way,” Smith said. “Our intervention data show such assignments help everyone – majority students, women, underrepresented people – everyone, to want to pursue and persist in science.”

This study, and our other data resulting from this grant are particularly important, Smith said, because they indicate that such recruitment and retention efforts required no additional money, just recognition that a personal investment in a student and support for his or her cultural values can be meaningful and make a difference.

“Even if the work a scientist is doing won’t directly cure cancer, somewhere down the road, that research likely has implications for some society benefit,” Smith said. “When scientists write grants they often must address the broad impact or the translational value of the work in order to get funded with taxpayer dollars. Our results suggest that sharing those possible down-the-road impacts with students will go a long way in holding their interest.”

“Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks in developing programs to prepare and train young people to pursue a scientific research career is to identify and understand what leads them to persist in a program despite the associated challenges and difficulties,” said Michael Sesma of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. He oversees research grants that test assumptions and hypotheses of social and behavioral factors that guide interventions designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups entering careers in biomedical research.

“Dr. Smith and Dr. Thoman’s work have shed new light on how cultural perspective influences the motivation of students from minority groups and how these factors may contribute to their persistence, commitment and success in the research setting.”

Smith said she believed that science will be improved as more students from underrepresented groups enter into the scientific workforce.

“Diversifying biomedical research doesn’t stop or start with undergraduate students,” Smith said.

“Diversity yields more creative and innovative ideas, so we must also think about diversity among our teachers and faculty, who can bring their unique perspectives into the scientific discourse.” Smith is also lead investigator of MSU’s ADVANCE grant, a $3.5 million grant to help broaden the participation of women faculty members in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The paper may be found at

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:21

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