Native American Microbiologist Dr. Kat Milligan-McClellan

by Erica Mitchell | November 4 2022 | Patient Advocacy, Microbiology, Professional Profile, Native Americans/First Peoples/Indian Americans | 0 Comments

native american microbiologistThe community of EOS Surfaces respectfully acknowledges the Chesepioc, Nansemond and other peoples of the Powhatan Tribes as the original stewards of the land, taken by conquest, on which our plant now stands. We thank their descendants for their forbearance and for the opportunity to produce a material that brings protection and healing to so many using a material from the land itself, copper. 

Far above the Arctic Circle there is a remote Alaskan town known as a hub between ocean and inland shipping with only 3,000 permanent residents. Kotzebue, or Qikiqtagruk to its indigenous Inupiaq peoples, has a long history of serving as a transportation and gathering hub, with inhabitants dating back centuries using the port to trade furs, seal-oil, and fish. Today, this small town is known for more than just being the "Gateway to the Arctic," but also the hometown of the first Alaskan Native to hold a PhD in Microbiology, Dr. Kat Milligan-McClellan. In today's post, we'll learn how her indigenous roots inform her current research into our gut microbiota.

Growing up a member of the Napaaqtugmiut tribe of the Inupiat people of Alaska, young Kat was surrounded by a community of predominately indigenous heritage. As she took her first science classes and decided to become a doctor, she could also learn about her people's long history on that land, first inhabited by her ancestors over two thousand years ago. When she arrived at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she was struck by the lack of diversity in the student body, an experience that would inspire her to be a life-long advocate for Native American education. "I really started this work in Madison. I was lucky to become part of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and Wunk Sheek, the Native American student group on campus," she noted in a recent interview with her alma mater, where she was one of 250 Native students in a school population of 40,000. 

As she narrowed her focus after completing her BS in Medical Microbiology and her Doctorate in Biological Sciences, Dr. Milligan-McClellan began to focus on microorganisms that affected her people and other Native groups. This focus was, in part, spurred by her community back home in Kotzubue. “They said ‘What’s the point of all this education if you’re not actually doing anything that can help people back home?’ So when I was looking at my postdoc, I took those words to heart,” she said at a recent seminar where she presented her research. As a result, her research emphasis became the diseases that disproportionately affect Alaskan Natives and Native Americans that are linked with microorganisms, specifically those in the gut: Stomach cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

How do these diseases have anything to do with bacteria? The scientific literature has already made connections between the populations of bacteria we have in our digestive system, known as "gut microbiota." These communities of bacteria mostly benefit us, but their close connection to how ourThree-spined_stickleback bodies operate, including our immune systems, means they also have the potential to cause us harm. Dr. Milligan-McClellan's research aims to identify how these two populations - people and their bacteria - react and adapt to changes in environment. To conduct these studies, she found the perfect non-human Alaskan native: The three-spined stickleback.

This Alaskan fish serves as a perfect analog for human populations in Alaska because it lives throughout the area in different environments, resulting in diverse populations with distinct microbiota. This diversity allows Dr. Milligan-McClennan and her team (made up of experts in genetics, immunology, and other disciplines) to make connections between diet, habitat and gut microbes. As a second part of her investigation, she introduced fish into new sites and then examined their gut microbes for changes. So far, her research has identified how different populations differ in their immune response to gut microbe communities, and she can now narrowing down on the mechanisms that regulate this response. Results from these studies will then inform her larger goal of making progress in the treatment of inflammatory conditions that may lead to stomach cancer, obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Dr. Milligan-McClellan's efforts to "help people back home" does not stop with her research topics. She teaches introductory microbiology to Indigenous high school students, encouraging them to continue their studies in college, and created a course at the University of Connecticut, where she serves as Assistant Professor in Molecular and Cell Biology, about marginalized groups and their access to and participation in the Western scientific community. Listen to more here.

Thankfully, she is not alone in her efforts to open the world of science to Indigenous peoples. The Native BioData Consortium, a biobank of biological samples, is run by and for indigenous people. All the samples are from indigenous volunteers, and all the scientists are from indigenous communities. Not only is a dedicated biobank important for addressing issues that affect these communities, it represents a reversal of historical transgressions, when indigenous samples were taken, used, and disposed of without permission or knowledge from their donors. Urban Indian Organizations, established under Title V of the Indian Health Improvement Act, provide health care services for Native Americans around the country. Part of their services includes providing cultural competency training for healthcare workers, helping them understand the cultural backgrounds of their patients and how to better meet their needs. 

As this month progresses, we will explore other important topics at the intersection of Native American Heritage and infection control and prevention. We hope you join us on this important journey!