UAF BLaST: Working with Rural Communities Continues in Interior Alaska

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By Amy Topkok

The Biomedical Learning and Student Training program (BLaST) at University of Alaska Fairbanks has funded many Faculty Pilot Projects (FPP) since 2015. One of those projects is with Jacques Philip, MD, who focuses his research on engaging rural Alaskan communities to reduce health disparities, making use of Alaska Native cultural values and multi-generational knowledge shared by community members and Elders. This involves a long-term collaboration with Huslia community members across multiple research projects with BLaST faculty and students. 

By working with Alaska Native students who include their perspectives in research involving their communities, the research is made more meaningful. This enriches the body of research literature. Philip is working with his colleagues Inna Rivkin, PhD, associate professor of the psychology department, and Cathy Brooks, associate professor of the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural and Development at UAF, on their second project titled, “Getting through a Pandemic: The Role of Culture and Traditions in a Rural Alaska Native Community.” They were also faculty in the first project.


UAF Jacques Philip & Team Visit Huslia, Winter
Jacques Philip and his team visited Huslia in 2018 in minus 60 Fahrenheit weather.
Luckily, the small airline, Wright’s Air, was able to continue their flying services
so the team was able to go out to the community. (Photo credit: Philip)


Philip, who joined the Center for Alaska Native Health Research (CANHR) at UAF in 2008, has a great interest in working with rural communities. Philip and Rivkin led their first BLaST-funded project titled, “Stories and Images of Community Strength from a Youth Dog Mushing Program in Rural Alaska,” in which they discussed the importance of how rural communities can work together through their tribal organizations using traditional activities such as dog mushing, as a portal to engage youth. Guidance from community members started early with Philip and Rivkin, who were later joined by Brooks. They worked with Huslia’s community members to find out what they would like to have as a research focus. 

Their research, conducted between 2017 and 2019, “explored the effects of the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program (FAYSDP), subsequently Alaska-Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Learning (A-CHILL), on the community of Huslia to understand its potential to improve behavioral health outcomes by building social capital.”  In A-CHILL, middle and high school youth learn dog handling and mushing skills taught by kennel owners, Elders, and volunteers in the village. In the BLaST Faculty Pilot Project (FPP) research, youth shared pictures and digital stories to voice their perspectives on how the program affected them and their community. These digital accounts are available on UAF’s CANHR website or on A-CHILL’s website

Highlights of the data collected include the young students sharing the value of being outdoors, working with older community members and Elders, how a community can work together and enjoy activities together, and how these types of experiences taught them the skills they need to continue traditional activities important to Koyukon Athabascan culture. The students also reflected on values like hard work, responsibility, sharing, and caring that help them be successful in their future. The Koyukon Athabascans are one of over 20 Alaska Native groups indigenous to Alaska.

Student Contributions

Undergraduate students Joe Bifelt and (former) BLaST Scholar Janessa Newman were instrumental to the success of this first BLaST FPP. Both are Koyukon Athabascan and found a great interest in how they may help communities see positive ways of involving Elders, youth and others engage in traditional activities. Newman is now a graduate student in the One Health master’s program at UAF, and is involved in Philip’s second FPP project. 

When asked about continuing her research, Newman said “it still feels really new. Jacques, Inna, and Cathy are really good mentors, really supportive, and still send me guides to help me in my writing process today.” 

“Our team has been really good at asking questions. Jacques and the others had made sure that Joe and I understood the content, the research process, and what we could accomplish in this project,” she said. 

It was also recognized that both Bifelt and Newman’s combined perspectives helped shape the views of how the research would be received in a rural setting. By being part of this project, they helped gain the trust and confidence of the community members and Elders, and inspired the youth to participate.

Newman is currently working on a first-author journal publication, where she will focus on integrating how FAYSDP affects youth and how connections to culture and land promote wellbeing. 

Brooks shared that Newman really worked hard in the first research project identifying and defining Athabascan core values so they can be used as part of the coding process. 

“I really appreciated that Janessa was willing to ask questions in the coding process, especially with the Athabascan values,” Brooks said of Newman’s work ethic. “Tying the values in with the scientific data was important, and Janessa was not afraid to object if she felt (that) any part of the coding did not reflect the value in its Indigenous context. Janessa demonstrated her potential of being a really good researcher through her ability to ask questions.”

UAF Jacques Philip & Team visit Huslia, Summer
The research team (left to right): Janessa Newman, Inna Rivkin,
Joe Bifelt, and Jacques Philip (team leader and Faculty Pilot Project lead)
in summer 2018 in Huslia. (Photo credit: Philip)

Cultural Activities in Research

In working with Alaska Native people, Philip said health education is very important in rural Alaska and the community at-large must be involved. 

“We also must realize the impact of culture on health is very important but is not widely acknowledged as a social determinant by the research community. Cultural activities really haven't been fully studied as a part of health research today,” he said. 

Brooks also shared this about working with Philip and Rivkin: 

“I have a greater appreciation and understanding of what they (Philip and Rivkin) do in research, and have now a greater awareness of what other departments are doing involving Alaska Native health and cultural activities. We are empowering the villages to validate what the village is already doing, and by sharing that knowledge, they hope to help the community in what they are doing with traditional activities such as dog mushing.” 

Brooks also recognized that Newman was in a key role to help bring in the Athabascan values into the research project and was able to give a broader sense of an assigned Alaska Native value to make those connections in the data. 

Newman shared that her involvement helped her realize that her cultural upbringing can be included in her research. 

“My mentorship with Jacques, Inna and Cathy constantly gives me the idea that the way I live my life [culturally], that not everyone does this. It is important to hear that for me to continue my work in this area.” 

Current BLaST Scholar Laura Ekada says, “through this project I am learning more and more how my experiences growing up in the village can be used in research. I know how my involvement in cultural activities has positively affected my life and now I get to talk about that in a research setting.” 

Student Mentorship

Involving the students who are Alaska Native in research projects helps those students learn how to conduct research and how to work with communities. Working with rural communities is even more important in Alaska, as rural communities constitute more than 242 villages and about 358,612 people, about half of the state’s population of around 724,357 ( 

Brooks and Rivkin both shared that Newman’s growth as a researcher has helped other students, like Ekada who is now working under Newman’s guidance. 

“Janessa is someone I can easily approach whenever I have any questions about our project. She always makes me feel comfortable and lets me know I am doing a good job. It feels really good to have another Alaska Native woman on the research team. I have someone to look up to,” Ekada said. 

In reflecting on her first experiences in research, Ekada said she did not know what to expect.

“Learning about the process, I learned that research (sometimes) can be slow (to see the results),” she said. “I have had a lot of questions, and now learning this process of how to create my own research questions, I can see myself as continuing research after I graduate. Work in recognizing wellness and resilience in rural communities is so important to me. I really want to continue this.” 

Philip had this to say about the learning process and working with a really good team: 

“I’ve seen this team really enjoy working on the data, getting to understand it. We all bring different perspectives in the work. Sometimes analyzing the data brings out past experiences, and that really helps.”  

Rivkin added that the process of co-learning is enhanced in a team atmosphere. 

“The team, as a whole, facilitates an environment of co-learning, sharing knowledge informed by many disciplines and experiences - understanding of rural Indigenous communities, culture, dog mushing, health research, psychology, Alaska Native studies and rural development, and so on,” Rivkin said. “Through this process, we form a deeper understanding of how community members work together, involve the youth, and how intergenerational learning happens. It benefits all those involved.” 

Ekada, fellow BLaST Scholar Michael Martins, and the rest of the team worked together on a poster, “One Health Insights from A Youth Dog Mushing Program in Rural Alaska Reflected through Photovoice, Digital Storytelling, and Focus Groups.” Ekada and Martins were both able to present their data at the Diversity Program Consortium’s Virtual Research Symposium in April 2021. 

Newman also introduced another BLaST Scholar to join the team in fall of 2021: Justin Kokrine of Huslia. Kokrine contributed insights based on local knowledge of Huslia.

UAF Co-lead Inna Rivkin & Undergrad Janessa Newman
Co-lead Inna Rivkin (left) and undergraduate student and (former) BLaST Scholar
Janessa Newman facilitating discussions with Huslia students in 2018. (Photo credit: Philip)


Continuing Work

Current work with Huslia, an Alaska community in the Interior, has been affected by COVID-19. Philip said the challenges include being unable to schedule face-to-face meetings and interactions with community members, which are normally essential to rural participation. The team, however, is still meeting virtually, continuing the discussion of how to proceed. 

Constant communication with the Huslia community members has been maintained, and the team continues to receive guidance from them on a regular basis. Philip said it was the community of Huslia that came up with the focus of their second project, “Getting Through a Pandemic: The Role of Culture and Traditions in a Rural Alaska Native Community.” This second project is now also working with Rampart, another village in Interior Alaska.

Ekada and Newman were able to use the skills they developed working on previous BLaST projects during another project with Rivkin. This project titled, “Expanding Intergenerational Dialogue Exchange and Action to Promote Youth Wellness,” builds on cultural strengths and intergenerational connections and is funded through the American Indian/Alaska Native Clinical Translational Research Program (AI/AN CTRP). This project took place in Nenana, another community in Interior Alaska, and then expanded to Kotzebue, a community in northwest Alaska. 

In the Intergenerational Dialogue Exchange and Action (IDEA) program, youth learn from Elders’ and adults’ stories that focus on cultural strengths that get them through hard times, reflect on sources of strengths in their own lives and communities, and then create digital stories about their own experiences. This program is designed to build support and resilience in rural Alaska Native communities. 

Newman has taken the lead in analysis of youth perspectives of the program. While analyzing their data, Rivkin, Newman, and Ekada had weekly discussions to infer meanings from survey results from youth in rural communities. 

“I enjoyed analyzing surveys because I got to see how youth were impacted by the IDEA program in their school. IDEA is a good way to create connections between youth and elders,” Ekada said.

Newman had previously presented a One Health poster in 2021 and shared data on Nenana community perspectives on IDEA. The Nenana IDEA project was funded by Alaska IDeA Network of Biomedical Research and Excellence (INBRE), another UAF program that supports faculty research and often includes student research opportunities. 

A short film about IDEA and this project was created by co-investigator and UAF associate professor Maya Salganek and her film students. It can be found on their Film and Performing Arts website. 

The team’s collaborations illustrate the importance of long-term relationships with rural communities that go beyond any one project. Students and community members guide the research from start to finish and the work still continues. Telling stories from Elders and youth has become the focus of this team, and is their drive to continue their work. The team would like to thank the students, teachers and staff of Jimmy Huntington School of Huslia, the community members, the Huslia Tribal Council, Wright’s Air Service, Nenana school teachers and students, the Nenana Native Association, and others guiding the research.

More information about other BLaST-funded faculty pilot projects can be found at their website

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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