NAU: Diamond in northern Arizona’s rough

July 11, 2003

By hammersmith

Of the five million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, many will pass through Flagstaff, Arizona, a gateway city for travel to the spectacular scenery and landmarks of northern Arizona and southern Utah. Most are oblivious to the fact that Flagstaff exceeds the role of a mere tourist town, especially through a public institution that is quietly thriving: Northern Arizona University.

Though smaller than Tempe’s Arizona State University or Tucson’s University of Arizona, NAU is home to more than 20,000 students and numerous research endeavors. Many of the research projects focus on the geographical and cultural diversity that make Arizona unique. As the state looks to the life sciences as a tool for development, the need to tailor growth to fit the state’s rapidly growing bioscience industry becomes paramount. NAU is rising to meet that challenge.

Genetics and beyond

Long before the anthrax scares of 2001 brought primetime national attention to Paul Keim, he worked in relative anonymity in NAU research labs and on the prairies of northern Arizona. Keim built his reputation as one of the world’s premier Bacillus anthracis authorities through a decade-long scrutiny of anthrax DNA profiles. Thanks largely to his work, the capacity now exists to distinguish extremely subtle differences among anthrax samples.

When anthrax was used as a post-9/11 terror tactic on American soil, Keim’s life abruptly changed. He had earlier identified strains used in the Japanese-subway anthrax attacks of 1993, though in a substantially less-visible manner. Now, his labs were protected around the clock by federal security agents, and he was besieged by endless media requests. Though unable to comment on any connection to the federal investigation, it was apparent he was at its epicenter.

Anthrax isn’t the only endeavor underway at the Keim Genetics Lab. Keim, the universitY’s Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology, has focused considerable attention on the germ that causes bubonic plague, and has helped to advance soybean breeding through study of plant genomes. His bioterrorism work will continue, however, bolstered by a $450,000 federal grant received earlier this year.

Keim’s latest activity involves a partnership with the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), linking one of the world’s preeminent geneticists with a group of scientists seeking genomics-based solutions to the problems of human disease. He has been appointed director of TGen’s Pathogen Genomics Division, and played a leading role in the successful DNA mapping of the Arizona plague, announced earlier this month. The joint project involved TGen, NAU, and ASU.

This is not the first time Keim and his laboratory have expanded their reach. The Keim lab has made an interdisciplinary contribution to another area of science: ecology. Thanks to the lab’s participation, Mark Sogge, station leader of the U.S. Geological Survey Colorado Plateau Research Field Station, has been able to gain a better understanding of the genetic diversity of the southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird he has been studying for over a decade. “Our research team did genetics,” Sogge says, “because Paul Keim was at the university.”

The information the USGS has obtained on the genetic variation of the flycatcher may help change Arizona’s approach to conservation. To understand why, one must grasp the problem. %pagebreak%

The southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered migratory bird facing significant habitat loss as a result of development and changes in riparian areas. One measurement of the likely success or extinction of a given species is the genetic variability found within that species. “Our genetics studies showed that although there aren’t a lot of birds here, their genetic variability is pretty good,” explains Sogge. “We got the genetics results before the banding results, but both showed that the birds are moving around a lot; this emphasized the point that you can’t manage the willow flycatcher by managing a few breeding sites where you find it. You have to manage it on a landscape scale.”

Such insights, coupled with the ability to translate research results into effective policy, are direct benefits of the collaborative approach found at NAU. Sogge comments that, “The federal government has a certain amount of biological expertise, but partnering with the university opens a world of scientific expertise, lab facilities, all of those things. It’s been a great partnership. We want to investigate ecosystem management, looking at things on a broad scale. How do you do this within a real framework, not just on birds? That’s why we’re there–because of incredible talent resources.”

His words are echoed by Paul Beier, director of NAU’s College of Ecosystem Science and Management. “NAU does have a great core of a lot of good biologists interested in applied ecology. They’re spread, but there are good relationships, for example, with the United States Geological Survey, the Rocky Mountain Field Station, the environmental science department, the biology department; they’re first-class people to work with.”

NAU has become a meeting point for scientists with a range of backgrounds using a variety of techniques to understand the environment of Arizona, including how best to protect and enjoy it. From molecular genetics to land management, scientific translation abounds.

Healthcare Innovation

The recent explosion of knowledge in molecular biology, highlighted by the monumental achievement of sequencing the entire human genome, has redirected the future of medicine, and NAU is keeping pace. As research advances begin to move from the lab to the clinic with the promise of more to come, it becomes increasingly vital that healthcare providers at all levels are educated in most effectively implementing this changing technology.

To address this need, in 1999 the Health Promotion Department at NAU began developing a distance-learning bachelor’s degree program for allied health professionals, one of the first of its kind in the country. Initially funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the program allows health professionals to further their education while continuing their jobs.

Paul Brynteson, author of the successful HRSA grant that began the program, explains: “In Arizona, if you’re not in Tucson, Phoenix, or Flagstaff, you often do not have a university close to you. And if you’re an allied health worker, you often work strange hours. Even if you wanted to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you don’t have access to the degree.” The bachelor’s degree in Health Promotion debuted in the fall of 2000 with five students from Arizona, and has since grown to include more than 120 students representing every county in Arizona, nine states and 10 allied health fields. All required courses are available via the Internet.

Before he wrote the HRSA grant, Brynteson collected data from Arizona’s healthcare workers, medical centers, and community colleges. He discovered an overwhelming interest in a flexible continuing education program, and with the support of the NAU administration, the program to prepare professionals to “plan, implement, and evaluate health promotion and health education” was born. In Brynteson’s words, “NAU as a university is very committed to the development of Internet-degree programs. The interest is out there at other institutions, but NAU had the infrastructure and support.”

“I think the first thing we want to communicate to the allied health professional interested in our program is that we’re not trying to take anyone out of their field,” explains Brynteson, a professor of health promotion. “We’re trying to turn out people who are well-trained professionals, and we’re increasing their broad perspective of health promotion and disease prevention so they will approach their job as not only excellent technicians, but understanding the whole role of health promotion and disease prevention as they interact with their patients.”

NAU’s vision for the program goes beyond the direct benefits of advancing education. Displaying foresight that may one day make a difference in healthcare in Arizona, the program developers and administrators would also like to have an influence at the management level. Brynteson notes: “As allied health professions grow, there’s a need for individuals to move into management. [With the NAU program] we’ll have individuals who are good technicians and who really understand the ins and outs of the job but can also stay in the hospital or medical center and move into the management positions.”

Cultural Commitment

This commitment to translational healthcare can also be seen in another NAU program, the NAU/UA Comprehensive Cancer Center partnership currently administered by NAU’s Julie Baldwin and UA’s Louise Canfield. While total cancer death rates are falling in the general United States population, they are increasing in the Native American population. The Native American Cancer Research Partnership was established to confront this growing health issue through collaboration between NAU and UA, and funded by a $7.5-million dollar National Cancer Institute (NCI) grant. Combining NAU’s proven background in successfully enrolling and graduating Native American students with UA’s excellence in cancer research, the program aims to reduce the unequal burden of cancer in Native Americans of the Southwest

Native American students at both institutions form a bridge between scientific research and community education. Says Baldwin, an associate professor: “This is an exciting project that is linking cancer research to the opportunities and challenges of fostering university and community partnerships. We want to build a cadre of Native American students and investigators trained in biomedical and public health research who will be able to take a lead in culturally competent cancer research and give back to their communities.” Grant funds cover a range of basic science, education, and outreach activities with the long-term goal of producing more Native American healthcare professionals and researchers.

Currently, much of the student-directed research concerns investigating the relationship between uranium exposure and cancer. “Native American students have a vital interest in the data, and this interest greatly enhances the potential to recruit and retain students,” says UA’s Canfield, a professor of biochemistry and public health. “In the long term, this will increase the number of Native American cancer researchers and oncologists.” According to Baldwin, one of the goals of the partnership is “to establish an ongoing dialogue and collaboration among tribes, the institutional review boards, and the universities to develop a memorandum of agreement to support cancer research and education.”

With tribal lands so close to the NAU campus, the university is well-situated to help promote other Native American public health initiatives. Baldwin previously directed a study investigating the social networks of Native American youth to examine the risks and protective factors related to HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and substance abuse. Baldwin and her colleagues at NAU’s College of Health Professions have also developed, implemented, and evaluated diabetes prevention and control programs in collaboration with Native American communities.

Baldwin articulates the purpose for these studies: “At NAU we are committed to working closely with neighboring tribal communities to provide training and educational opportunities in public health and other health professions. With our community partners, we hope that NAU can some day take the lead in developing a Native American Center for Health Promotion.” It is a long-term goal, but one on its way to becoming reality.

NAU’s commitment to the biosciences might be best grasped by looking toward the future. The university is devoting major funding from Proposition 301, a sales-tax initiative to support education, to its Growing Biotechnology Initiative to build new facilities and enhance its research infrastructure. In addition, as part of the $440-million university-research funding recently passed by the Arizona Legislature, NAU would devote $73 million to build an applied research and design building, remodel outdated facilities, and construct the NAU Yuma Science Building in Yuma in conjunction with Arizona Western College.