Montana State University

MSU team receives $282,000 grant for new approach to tribal issues

May 10, 2017 -- By Evelyn Boswell for the MSU News Service

Florence Dunkel, MSU associate professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, Claire Sands Baker, director of Biotech Investments, Ed Dratz, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, David Sands, professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, and Holly Hunts, associate professor of consumer economics, plan strategies on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Bozeman, Mont., after receiving a grant to develop a new approach to issues on Montana's Indian reservations. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University researchers, from left, Ed Dratz, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Holly Hunts, associate professor of consumer economics, Florence Dunkel, associate professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, and Claire Sands Baker, director of Biotech Investments, plan strategies on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Bozeman, Mont., after receiving a grant to develop a new approach to issues on Montana's Indian reservations. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University researchers Florence Dunkel, associate professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, right, Holly Hunts, associate professor of consumer economics, left, and Claire Sands Baker, director of Biotech Investments, center, plan strategies on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Bozeman, Mont., after receiving a grant to develop a new approach to issues on Montana's Indian reservations. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Florence Dunkel, MSU associate professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, Claire Sands Baker, director of Biotech Investments, Ed Dratz, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, David Sands, professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, and Holly Hunts, associate professor of consumer economics, plan strategies on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Bozeman, Mont., after receiving a grant to develop a new approach to issues on Montana's Indian reservations. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN — Montana State University researchers who look for solutions to some of the world's problems have received a $282,000 grant to develop a new approach to issues on Montana's Indian reservations.

With its three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team will collaborate with eight tribal college students with a passion for solving problems related to food, health and agriculture, said principal investigator Holly Hunts. She is an associate professor of consumer economics in MSU's College of Education, Health and Human Development.

The students will participate in a new 14-month program, called PATHS, or "Pathways to Agriculture and Native foods, Tribal Health and Sovereignty." As paid interns, they will receive job training and mentoring from tribal leaders and community innovators, as well as MSU faculty and students. The interns will conduct research and visit projects from Montana to Washington, D.C.

The interns will also choose projects to work on that might relate to nutrition, health, economics, agriculture and native foods, plants, entomology, food sovereignty, diabetes, community development or consumer advocacy, Hunts said. One intern, for example, might develop a peanut butter that better balances Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, yielding a healthier peanut butter. Another intern might focus on getting more of the reservation's grass-fed buffalo into school lunch programs.

"We need really smart students to address problems in their community," Hunts said. "They know (their community’s problems and challenges), and we don't. We can facilitate them solving their problems. That's the goal."

The team behind the grant said it hopes to demonstrate to the USDA and other agencies that it has created a better model for addressing complex widespread issues. The team also hopes its efforts will benefit existing summer programs that bring Native American students to MSU.

In the process of interning, the students will become more employable, Hunts said. One goal of PATHS is to create professional pathways for Native students to work to solve real-world problems.

Team member David Sands, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture, said it's not too high a dream to believe that the students will someday win Nobel Prizes for their contributions to the world. 

"There are brilliant kids out there," he said. "It's a matter of giving them a chance."

Hunts, Sands and other core members of the PATHS team are currently looking for students to apply for the internships. Those core members are Ed Dratz, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science; Florence Dunkel, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology; and Claire Sands Baker, a longtime nonprofit consultant.

"Other programs want 4.0 students," Hunts said. "We don't necessarily want them. We want somebody who wants to solve problems."

The search so far has taken the PATHS team to Montana tribal colleges and the Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations. The group has posted information on Facebook (@PATHS.MSU). Members recently attended the 42nd annual American Indian Council Powwow in Bozeman, where they met with tribal members, including Eric Birdinground. He is a senator in the Crow Nation Legislative Branch and chairman of the tribe's Health and Human Services Committee.

He sees a real need to help tribal college students successfully make the transition to four-year programs, Birdinground commented later. As a tribal leader and diabetic, he also sees a link between fresh foods, health and school performance, but said that many Native Americans on reservations can't afford to buy healthier foods. He added that he appreciated the opportunity to be a consultant on the PATHS program.

"A lot of times on research, it seems like the grant writer gets the glory. We are left without the information," Birdinground said. "With this, it's more of a collaboration."

Hunts said the eight student interns will be divided into two groups. Half will enter the program this summer and half in 2018.

During the first summer, the students will spend six weeks at MSU conducting research and building job skills. With so many faculty members participating in PATHS, the students will be able to choose the laboratory that most fits their personalities and research interests, Hunts said. If necessary, they will work on their skills in math and academic English. Among other things, they may learn Greek and Latin root words so they can decipher for themselves the complex scientific words that make food labels a mystery.

The interns will continue to keep in touch with their mentors after returning home, Hunts said. During the school year, they will connect through monthly online team meetings. They will take field trips to successful agriculture and food-related programs, such as the Livingston Food Resource Center.

During their second summer, the students will fly to Washington D.C. to meet with national policy makers who already collaborate with MSU researchers. The students will also work on their own research projects. By that time, they should be ready to work more independently, Hunts said.

The MSU researchers said that the interns' work could possibly lead to new tribal businesses. That potential is why Trevor Huffmaster, director of the MSU Blackstone LaunchPad's 406 Labs program, is involved with the PATHS project. Huffmaster said his passion is connecting people and working with teams to solve big problems through entrepreneurship.

Hunts said the members of the PATHS group regularly brainstorm together and ignore the boundaries of their specialties to think creatively to address complex problems.

"We are exponentially smarter together," Hunts said.

Hunts added that the team members share a resourcefulness that allows them to come up with unique solutions. Sands, for example, created a way to use a toothpick, fungus and clump of rice to help African farmers fight the Striga weed that's choking their crops. For that, he received a $100,000 Grand Challenges Exploration grant in 2013 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Dunkel and her MSU students created a way to help prevent kids in African villages from dying from cerebral malaria using leaves of local neem trees to stop development of mosquito larvae. Dunkel received a $462,000 Higher Education Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to begin the work. And, the PATHS team together developed the idea of feeding camelina to black soldier fly larvae to create a product rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

Anyone with questions about the PATHS program should contact PATHSMSU@gmail.com or text (406) 599-9457.

Contact: Holly Hunts, MSU associate professor of consumer economics, (406) 994-7993 or hhunts@montana.edu