Every summer while he was growing up, Alexander Red Eagle and his family escaped city life in Long Beach, California, by traveling to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where his father grew up. There, Red Eagle watched a disease--type 2 diabetes--slowly devastate a community.

"That was something that people talked about. It was a major problem," he recalled. "I've had people that I know and respect that either passed away or have lost different functions of the body due to the progression of the disease."

Red Eagle's visits to the reservation would fuel his career ambitions. Today he is on his way to becoming a physician and a biomedical researcher, pursuing a M.D./Ph.D. degree at Stanford University's Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).

Drawn To Research

Red Eagle's interest in science started to form in high school, thanks to Ms. O'Donnell, who Red Eagle describes as "a great chemistry teacher." His interest in chemistry carried him through to a major in biochemistry at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).

During his junior year, another teacher changed his life; biochemistry professor Steven Clarke invited him to do research in his lab, which he immediately loved. "[Steven Clarke] really got me to enjoy science and pursue it as a graduate student later on," he says. Red Eagle worked in Clarke's lab for two years, thanks to support from a UCLA summer research program and the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Program, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Red Eagle's projects used a mouse model to investigate a protein repair enzyme and its association with the natural aging process.

Lost, But Only For a While

The long hours Red Eagle spent in the lab led him to question his professional goals. "I spent all my time in the lab, and I really felt like I wasn't part of anything," he remarks. "I didn't feel like I was making any kind of impact." What he was missing was interacting with people. Red Eagle was accustomed to lending a hand to fellow Native Americans on and off campus, even serving as president of UCLA's American Indian Student Association for two years. He decided that his future career would have to include giving back to the Native American community.

Red Eagle's dissatisfaction with research came to a head in the summer of 2002, when he quit a summer project studying the yeast genome at the Stanford Genome Technology Center. He needed time to think, so he took the rest of the summer off.

That fall, Red Eagle explored other interests at UCLA, sitting in on classes covering American Indian law, politics, and health. He soon missed the lab--he resumed his research position with Clarke--and wondered whether he'd be happier with a M.D. degree instead of a Ph.D. Work as a physician, he thought, could provide him the human interaction he desired. By the time he completed his B.S. in biochemistry in 2003, he had resolved his dilemma. He decided to apply for M.D./Ph.D. programs.

Full of Possibilities

After graduation, Red Eagle took a year off, spending the summer in the lab of Arthur Horwich at Yale University, thanks to Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. There, Red Eagle studied the toxicity and stability of abnormal forms of a protein called transthyretin, which can cause heart failure and neurodegenerative disorders.

Red Eagle also spent a few weeks that summer getting up early in the morning to shadow Robert Sherwin, a Yale physician specializing in endocrinology. When he saw Sherwin treating diabetic patients and conducting diabetes research, he realized: "That's the type of medicine I'd like to do. I like the fact that endocrinologists can see patients over and over, get to know them as people. It [was] good to see that someone else is doing something that's similar to what I want to do."

He was further convinced when he spent a day learning about the health needs of Native Americans in California with Laura Williams, a Native American physician. A few months later, Red Eagle did research with Robert Hanson at the Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch in Phoenix, Arizona, part of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Red Eagle applied statistical methods to determine the role specific genes might play in kidney failure in diabetic Pima Indian patients. He called the experience life-changing as it combined his interests in medicine, research, and community service.

As Red Eagle receives M.D./Ph.D. training at Stanford University's MSTP program, he is intent on tackling diabetes and related health issues. He will pay for his Ph.D. training, likely in human genetics, using HHMI's Gilliam Graduate Fellowship. He plans to do his residency in internal medicine and specialize in endocrinology.

Red Eagle says finding his niche has been a challenge because "there are not a lot of Indians who are in science, not as many who are in medicine either," but he appreciates the mentorship he's received along the way and encourages others to keep an open mind while exploring their interests. "Ask everyone you can for help and advice," he says. "When looking for mentors, you don't have to find the exact person you want to be because that person may be few and far between or you may have to be that person for yourself." And when you find something you are passionate about he adds, ". . . pursue it, and don't give up."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofrancisco@nasw.org.