By Toni Lapp
From the window of her office on the Anschutz Medical Campus, Katrina Claw, PhD, sees lands that Native American tribes called their home.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge the original occupants of the Denver-Aurora area,” says Claw, an assistant professor of biomedical informatics. “This area was – and still is – the home for the Apache, Ute, Comanche, Arapaho, and many other tribes. CU’s land acknowledgement statement recognizes and respects Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of the land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories.”
Claw is Diné, which means “the People” in her native tongue, and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, bringing an important perspective to her work as a genetic researcher.
Her career choice is a bit of a paradox because the Navajo Nation placed a moratorium on tribal participation in genetic research studies in 2002, partly over concerns about research ethics and exploitation. The ban remains in effect.
“That’s been in place my whole career,” she says. “People ask me why I got into genomics. I saw the potential for genomics to alleviate health disparities, and I was drawn to the stories that genomic variation could tell.
“There is a disconnect between genetic and genomic research and Indigenous communities. What we want is for research to be on our own terms. I conduct my research knowing there will be checks and balances and accept that it will take time to work through them.”
In 2020, Claw received a Genomic Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that provides more than $1.5 million to support her work. In mid-2022, she received a $250,000 supplement to develop a mentorship program supporting two Indigenous scholars from undergraduate to early-career faculty stages.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are underrepresented in health research – as study participants, researchers, and health care providers. As a result, some questions go unasked, and some problems are not even studied because they are not recognized.
For Indigenous people, that means some issues may not be studied as closely as they should be. According to the federal Indian Health Service, Indigenous people have higher rates of diabetes, respiratory diseases, and certain cancers.
In her NIH project, Claw is studying the enzyme cytochrome P450 2A6 and its role in nicotine metabolism and smoking cessation, focusing on how a person’s genes affect the way their body responds to drugs.
Claw leads an all-female research lab, many of whom are of Indigenous heritage. She recruits trainees who benefit from the mentoring that she struggled to find as an aspiring young scientist growing up on the Navajo Nation. She also looks for trainees who have research interests that align with her community-engaged approach.
When Claw began her research career, she noticed that labs were often “white, sterile places,” and that researchers themselves lacked cultural and firsthand knowledge of the people they were studying.
She seeks to change that perspective. She welcomes new people to her lab by introducing herself in the Navajo language. It takes longer than the standard, “nice to meet you,” and she explains that the words, when translated, indicate who her clan is and where they are from. She also keeps sage in her office for cleansing and healing purposes and strives to incorporate Native art in her lab and office space.
At weekly lab meetings, trainees take turns sharing what is going on in their lives – inside and outside of work. She encourages team dinners and other outings. On Indigenous Peoples Day, her team hiked the Chautauqua Trail in Boulder.
“Katrina emphasizes the collaborative nature of research,” says Kaja Aagaard, research assistant and lab manager. “She’s great at shifting the social hierarchy of academics to give support and recognition to her students and mentees. The lab culture is welcoming, and it feels like we’re all encouraged to be ‘whole people,’ even at work.”
As first-generation or nontraditional students, Claw’s trainees have encountered challenges in their educational journey. Some expressed feeling isolated because they had few role models.
Tada Vargas Black Bear, a Lakota from South Dakota, is a first-generation, nontraditional student who took time off to start a family. She says having the support of a principal investigator who understands these challenges has been important to her.
“It can be very lonely being the only Indigenous student in your class, cohort, or institution,” she says. “I went to a tribal college for my undergraduate degree, so there’s definitely a culture shock coming to a mainstream institution like CU Anschutz.”
Vargas Black Bear’s family has a history of autoimmune disorder, which is a research interest of hers.
“I’ve always wanted to study why autoimmune prevalence is so high in Indigenous populations,” she says. “In Katrina’s lab, we’re studying how different populations metabolize drugs differently, which has been really helpful.”
Leah Nez, who grew up on the Navajo Nation in Utah, was an intern at the NIH Tribal Health Research Office when she first met Claw, and is now in CU’s PIKE-PREP (Preparation in Interdisciplinary Knowledge to Excel - Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program), which offers mentoring and research training for underrepresented post-baccalaureate students as they enroll in PhD or MD/PhD programs.
Her research focus is on the ethical use of ancient DNA. While working in Claw’s lab, she is applying to graduate programs in bioethics. As an undergraduate, she double-majored in biology and philosophy, which she acknowledges might seem like two disparate fields.
“But they shouldn’t be,” Nez says. “The idea is starting to gain traction, the moral and ethical obligations that researchers have to the people that they research.”
The NIH supplemental grant created two mentoring opportunities in Claw’s lab, currently filled by Carissa Sherman and Amber Nashoba, PhD.
While Sherman grew up mainly in Arizona and Washington state, her family is from the Navajo Nation. As an undergraduate at Colorado College, she majored in molecular biology and minored in anthropology. She is in the Human Medical Genetics and Genomics PhD program at CU Anschutz.
“I’ve always had an interest in science and culture and how the two influence each other. Both have been influential in shaping my academic interests,” Sherman says. “I knew I wanted to study genetics, partly because of a history of retinitis pigmentosa in my family. Growing up, I wasn’t really exposed to Native scientists. I did have several female advisors, and being a woman in STEM, this is important for me to have this support.
“Katrina has been a great influence in making me a better scientist,” she says. “She helps me out of my comfort zone by building my confidence and encouraging me to present my research at several different avenues.”
She, in turn, supports Claw’s research, leading surveys and analyzing focus groups’ data from Navajo researchers to gauge their perspectives on genetic studies amid the ongoing moratorium.
Nashoba, who is Choctaw, grew up on military bases as the child of a noncommissioned Army officer until her parents retired, and she finished high school in Alaska. After completing graduate school and previous postdoctoral positions, she returned to Alaska and started working remotely in the Claw lab in early 2022, transitioning to postdoctoral fellow in November.
“In the Claw lab, there’s an emphasis on working with communities to address health issues that directly impact Indigenous communities,” Nashoba explains. “It’s Indigenous people doing science essentially for the benefit of Indigenous communities.”
She appreciates that the mentorship program will help Indigenous researchers build stronger networks. Her research includes studies on genetic variation and the capacity to adapt to changing environments. She is currently developing a data pipeline for the evolutionary analysis of drug-metabolizing enzymes, looking for patterns of genetic variation and adaptive selection that could have health implications for contemporary populations.
Claw says that when thinks about mentoring she thinks of her father. “He never finished grade school, but he taught me everything I know about hard work and trusting our ancestral knowledge,” she says.
She was just a ninth grader at a tribal high school when she became interested in research. She fondly remembers a teacher who encouraged her to identify a real-world problem, design a solution, and collaborate with others.
“Mrs. Terry helped me enter and prepare for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) science fair, sharing her home and technological resources as well as intellectual guidance,” she recalls. “As a shy teenager, this experience allowed me to face my fear of public speaking and gain confidence.”
Inspired by her mentors, Claw has stepped into the role herself. Becoming a CU faculty member in 2019, she has found CU a welcoming and supportive environment and the stated mission to provide educational opportunities for Native students, faculty, and staff, to be a driver in her role of researcher and teacher.
“Great mentors challenge mentees to think critically and to reach beyond their perceived capabilities, while providing support when needed,” Claw says. “Great mentors serve various roles: new idea sounding board, supporter, advocate, teacher, and friend. While I don’t think I’m a great mentor yet, it is my aspiration to become one.”
“My mentorship philosophy is to be the mentor who helps others realize and express their innate talent and ability. I hope that my philosophy and approach will encourage the next generation of scientists to be ethical, innovative, and inspiring.”