Montana State University

Student plans career in Native American health

March 20, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University computer science student Sha Brady recently attended a course on Native American public health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md. (MSU photo by Jay Thane.)   High-Res Available

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In the world of computer science students, Sha Brady is both unusual and unusually successful.

A junior at Montana State University, Brady is 31 years old, while the average undergraduate is 22. As a woman, she is part of only 8 percent of the total computer science undergraduate enrollment and as a Native American, only 6 percent.

She is a mother of three, the first in her family to attend college and recently attended a prestigious one-week institute course on interdisciplinary approaches to understanding Native American health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md. She attended on scholarship.

"I really didn't think I'd get it," said Brady. "Health isn't my major. I just tried for the heck of it."

But Brady's desire to apply computer science to Native American health statistics, data management and analysis helped her be one of only eight scholarship winners nationally.

"Sha has an interest in building her public health skills and a commitment to using those skills to help Native American people," said Cathie Frazier, director of training and scholarship programs for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. "We specifically target students who express interest in working with native communities and using their skills to solve problems in those communities. There is a need to increase the number of Native Americans with public health skill and knowledge across the board."

The Johns Hopkins Winter Institute examined blending Native American healing with Western methods. Students learned to view health issues from the perspective of Native communities and through the lenses of epidemiology, anthropology, mental health, political science and sociology.

What she learned from the seminar surprised her, Brady said.

"The statistics for diabetes, substance abuse, accidents and suicide are all much higher than the general U.S. population," said Brady, who is Navajo. "Accidents related to Native Americans not wearing seat belts or children not being in car seats is also very high."

At the seminar Brady met the first female Navajo surgeon, Lori Arviso Alvord, who is currently the assistant dean for student and minority affairs at Dartmouth and author of "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear."

Alvord talked about combining Western and traditional medicines and told the students about her own experience with pelvic pain during a pregnancy. Alvord's Western-trained physician was considering inducing birth because of Alvord's high blood pressure. But Alvord wanted a traditional, Navajo-style birth. So she sought out a Navajo medicine man who gave her a traditional blessing. The outcome was a health baby and healthy mom.

"The pain went away and she had her child (normally)," Brady said. "She was brought back into harmony with herself and her child. I really believe that too. I've had three children and never had any problems because my mom was telling me the same thing (being in harmony) was important."

Brady and her husband, Cetan Thunder Hawk, have three children: Cetan, 4; daughter Shayai, 3; and Isaiah, 2.

"My husband really supports me in school," Brady said. "He's a stay-at-home dad and he also really encouraged me to go back to school."

Brady grew up in the small town of Rock Point, on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. She is the first in her family of nine children to attend college. She came within one year of earning a secondary education degree in Arizona before taking time off to raise a family. She now hopes to return to the Navajo reservation and work either for the Indian Health Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the field of health statistics.

It was a cousin who first introduced her to the potential of computers.

"I liked the challenge of it," Brady said "I like my brains to get a workout."

She chose MSU because it was the first of three universities to send her an acceptance letter.

"I like MSU," Brady said. "I'm challenged by my classes and I really like the EMPower Student Center."

MSU's Engineering Minority Program provides scholarships, tutoring and a sense of community for women and minorities in engineering. The student center is located one floor above College of Engineering Dean Robert Marley's office, himself a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

"Math was a difficult subject for me," Brady said. "But I got a lot of tutoring help through the EMPower Center, which helped a great deal."

But for Brady, the biggest help has come from her husband, her children and her family.

"My family keeps me going," Brady said. "My mom and dad have always said 'Go to school, go to school, go to school.' I give a lot of thanks to my parents."

Contact: Sha Brady, sha.brady@myportal.montana.edu; Sheree Watson, assistant director of Designing Our Communities, College of Engineering, MSU, (406) 994-6723 or swatson@coe.montana.edu; Cathie Frazier, director of training and scholarship programs for Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, cfrazier@jhsph.edu.