The cash gift of $10 million, to be paid over five years, comes from an anonymous donor from Minnesota who recently learned of his own Native American roots, said Dr. Paula Termuhlen, dean of the school’s Duluth campus. It comes with virtually no strings attached.
The largest gift in the history of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus will be used to establish a Native American Center of Excellence, school officials announced Wednesday.
“The idea of creating this center of excellence around all things Native American as it pertains to health and science is something that we’re really excited about being able to use these funds for,” Termuhlen said as she sat alongside staff and faculty members in an exclusive interview.
The center will serve as an umbrella for an already existing emphasis on recruiting and training Native American medical students, Termuhlen said. In any given year, Native Americans comprise about 10 percent of the university’s medical school class. That makes Minnesota’s medical school second only to the University of Oklahoma in the number of Native American medical students.
Moreover, the six faculty members at the school’s Duluth campus who are Native American comprise about a quarter of all Native Americans on medical school faculties in the entire country, Termuhlen said.
Only about 1 percent of the nation’s doctors are Native American, she added.
Among the faculty members is Benjamin Clarke, an associate professor and biomedical researcher who is enrolled in the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The gift is particularly significant in that it comes at a time when federal research dollars are shrinking, Clarke said.
“I’m kind of stammering about how to use it, because I’m looking at a bleak future and now I’m hearing about, there’s actually a safety net,” he said. “It’s a wonderful idea.”
Which isn’t to say that Clarke doesn’t have plenty of ideas for how to use the money.
One of the projects Clarke already is heading is a study of Lyme disease. He sends out student researchers, dressed in protective gear, to use a cloth material to collect ticks during the appropriate season and places. So far, they’ve found that 10 to 15 percent of deer ticks in northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, he said.
Money from the gift potentially could be used to expand the number of students in the program or acquire more-sophisticated equipment, Clarke said.
Melissa Walls, an associate professor in biobehavioral health and population sciences, envisions, among other things, a collaborative study on the health benefits of sweat lodges, which have spiritual significance in Native American culture.
“When you have pollutants in your food supply, for example mercury in fish, how are you going to get rid of that?” asked Walls, whose tribal affiliation is with the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Couchiching First Nation. “You can sweat it out. So what if we did some collaboration with tribal communities? … There’s a culturally specific healing method.”