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NATIVE EXPLORERS: Sparking the Minds of Students and Training the Next Generation of Native Scientists and Physicians
By Jeff Hargrave

August 2, 2012

While progressing through higher education, Dr. Kent Smith, an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation and Chickasaw, realized early on there was a lack of Native peers and mentors in the STEM fields. In order to improve on these statistics, Dr. Smith co-founded Native Explorers, an Oklahoma non-profit that promotes increasing the number of Native Americans in science and medicine. Traditional ways and culture are also a vital part of this program, where science and Native culture are often segued.

Native Explorers provides mentors, internships, summer programs, networking, scholarships, and an opportunity to learn about the natural and biomedical sciences. Summer programs offer unique out of the class room experiences that include scientific expeditions to remote areas giving participants an opportunity to work side by side with research scientists.

2012 Native Explorers

In June 2012, Native Explorers traveled through the Southwest part of the United States introducing participants to a variety of science disciplines. Led by Dr. Smith, NE discovered dinosaur fossils at Black Mesa, explored cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and dug for fossil vertebrates in the Wasatch Mountains.

Sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation and the Whitten Burrage Law firm, the 2012 NE summer expedition began at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences (OSU-CHS) in Tulsa, Oklahoma where ten Native Explorer participants toured the medical school and learned about the medical and graduate programs from medical and graduate faculty as well as students. While on the OSU-CHS campus, students learned about anatomy, vertebrate paleontology and how to read topographic and geological maps, and identify fossils. With the basic tools in hand, the group of 10 participants and 12 mentors (faculty, medical and graduate students) traveled to Stroud, Oklahoma where they enjoyed a Sac and Fox traditional meal and Chickasaw stories and dances.

The next morning, NE set out for Black Mesa. While at Black Mesa, the students excavated dinosaur bones from a site (Homestead) discovered by Derek Watson, Reggie Whitten, and Kent Smith.  Others with much less experience have looked for bones in the area without success.  Thus, Derek and crew are the first to find a new dinosaur locality (Homestead) since Dr. J. Willis Stovall collected there during the early 1940s. In addition, the students explored local dinosaur track-ways and numerous archeological sites including petroglyphs, tool making sites and fire rings.

Native Explorers Brandon Parker and Aaron Fournier work on exposing the sauropod fossils.

After camping at Black Mesa State Park for two nights, Native Explorers departed for Mesa Verde, CO, where they participated in a guided tour of the ancient pueblo ruins. While at Mesa Verde, Native Explorers learned about the ancient pueblo people that inhabited the local area thousands of years ago and explored the cliff dwellings.

The Native Explorers visit the Cliff House at Mesa Verde.

The final stop on this expedition was south-central Utah, where they joined Dale Harber who is a geologist with the USDA Forest Service. Mr. Harber arranged for numerous activates for the group that afforded an opportunity for them to learn how the USDA Forest Service employees (range managers, fire managers, fisheries biologist, geologist, archeologist, botanist, and wildlife managers) manage the resources. There Native Explorers stayed in tents on Ferron Mountain at an elevation of about 9,000 feet above sea level, prospected and collected fossil vertebrates, and were treated to a guided tour of the local archaeological sites and rock panel art by an archaeologist (Ms. Charmaine Thompson) with the USDA Forest Service.

Native Explorers was co-created by Dr. Smith and Whitten Burrage Law Firm partners, Reggie Whitten and Michael Burrage, a member of the Choctaw Nation and the first Native American Federal Judge.

Native American students interested in science, medicine and/or paleontology are encourage to apply today.

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