The Native Explorers program aims to inspire future physicians


Brandon Postoak, who is nearing the end of his medical studies, attributes his success to Dr. Kent Smith and the Native Explorers program. (Courtesy OSU Photo/Medicine)

As an undergraduate student and aspiring doctor, Brandon Postoak took the MCAT and didn’t do well. He was devastated and uncertain of his future. He knew he would need a better scientific basis.

Postoak entered a master’s program in biomedical science and research under Kent Smith, associate dean, Office of American Indians in Medicine and Science at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. This unexpected pedagogical detour turned out to be invaluable.

“I thought that not doing well on that MCAT, having to take a few years off, was one of the worst and most detrimental things in my life, but looking back on it now, it was probably one of the biggest. things that ever happened to me,” Postoak said. “That setback was actually a strengthening of the foundations that I needed to pursue the things that I wanted to do, and it was all down to Dr. Smith.”

Postoak recently reflected on his experience as a young Native American pursuing a career in science. “I didn’t have a lot of people of my color, who looked like me, doing the things that I do now,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine myself becoming things because I couldn’t see it.”

Postoak’s experience mirrors what Smith discovered during his own educational journey and has since sought to overcome. Native Explorers, a program for Native American undergraduate students interested in science, is Smith’s statement to the world. The hands-on summer program began in 2010. He had to take two years off due to COVID-19, but plans to resume this summer in a modified format. Traditionally, it consisted of 20-25 people on a two-week multi-state trip, complete with camping, archaeological digs, and cultural sharing.

“The Native Explorers program started around the time I started my grad career, noticing that there were no other Native American graduate students. I never had a Native American teacher or mentor,” Smith said.

The program is supported by several tribes and entities, including the American Indians in Science Engineering Society. The partnerships include scientists and educators from the Chickasaw Nation, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the US Forest Service in Price, Utah, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Germaine Fields, Education Specialist with the Chickasaw Nation, has been involved with Indigenous explorers since her first experience in 2012, which was also her very first camping trip.

“At one point we were in Utah, on a mountain, no power, no water, very primitive, for seven days,” she said. “It was very unique and I loved it. I was hooked after that. It’s a great bonding experience.

The Chickasaw Nation wanted to be involved in the program, Fields said, “so they could encourage our Indigenous students to get involved in STEM fields and see other aspects of science and medicine besides just being a doctor. or things they see on TV. . We have students who maybe weren’t sure what they wanted to do, they didn’t necessarily choose a major, they just knew they wanted to get involved in science or medicine and do what journey helped them discover where they wanted to focus.”

And part of what helps students find their niche on trips is the ability to interact with mentors, Fields said. “We have so many mentors who go on trips – medical students, geologists, all kinds of different professionals. Students look up to mentors and they can relate to them.

Smith said the mentors are graduate and medical students, professionals from different museums, Chickasaw educators and others. When Smith asked Postoak to consider being a mentor to native explorers, Postoak seized the opportunity and has since completed three trips as a mentor.

“It was an honor to be a part of this,” Postoak said. “As a mentor, even though I’m only a few years older, I still have many students asking me about GRE, MCAT, how can I prepare, what are my thoughts for this subject, what are my thoughts on this. I never thought I would be in this position – I always thought I would be the person asking the questions.

Smith said the cultural learning is one of the benefits of the program that surprised him. “To my amazement, many of these Aboriginal students who come with us really don’t know much about their culture or their history,” he says. “They keep a scientific journal and each of them has always written one of the greatest things they have gained from this program is knowledge of their people, and they are eager to learn more about their own culture.”

Mason Two Crow, another OSU-COM fourth-year medical student and former Native Explorer student participant and mentor, described the experience as “a truly unique collaboration between science and culture,” where Smith encouraged each participant to share their culture, their history. and language. “As we are all intertribal, we have different stories. It was a nice little melting pot where everyone could talk about how they had been raised.

Dr. Kent Smith, left, and Mason Two Crow, far right, on an expedition of Aboriginal explorers.
(Courtesy Photo/Indigenous Explorers)

Two Crow credits her experience with the program and Smith as a profound influence on her current situation. “I love the program, and it really was a huge stepping stone in my career now as a future doctor.”

When Two Crow returned to Native Explorers as a mentor, he was able to share with the students. “As a mentor, not only was I able to speak on behalf of the experience of the Indigenous explorers, but I was also able to speak to these pre-med students and let them know that this experience would help them establish a connection to the medical school, I was able to tell them a lot about the MCAT, a lot of the medical school application process,” he said. “A lot of these students usually have a healthcare career on their horizon.”

Smith is proud of the current situation of Two Crow and Postoak. “It took over a decade to see them go through Indigenous explorers and other institutions, apply and commit to OSU-COM, and now they’re going to graduate and they’re going to be Indigenous doctors. There are more Native Americans than any other underrepresented group in Oklahoma, so it would be nice to have doctors who understand their population.

The Native Explorers program was so well received that a Junior Explorers program was started by the Chickasaw Nation for Native Americans in grades K-12.

“Junior Native Explorers started involving younger people with the idea that they were going to enroll in the college-age program,” Fields said. “We just felt like we were starting with the younger ones, involving them in the STEM fields that would help them when they grow up and enter high school instead of just starting with them when they enter college. We’ve had so many kids go from the junior program to the college program.


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