Student motivated to improve health of Native Americans

Brittany Begaye

It has been a busy few years for Brittany Begaye, who graduates in May with a degree in biomedical science and a minor in chemistry. Just as she mastered time management with challenging courses and a job helping fellow students with organic chemistry, Begaye’s life is about to get a lot busier.

Her first step after the graduation ceremony is to travel to Bethesda, Md., for an internship with the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The internship is part of her larger plan to apply to medical school and eventually return to the Navajo Reservation and be of service to the Navajo people.

“It would help for people to see a Native American doctor out there,” said Begaye, who has yet to have that experience herself.

This summer, she will research diabetes and work with diabetic patients. Begaye’s grandmother has had the disease for more than 20 years. “It has been difficult to watch her struggle with diabetes, and in Navajo, there is no word to describe the it,” Begaye said.

Bridging the language barrier and cultural divide is a motivating factor for Begaye.

“I really wanted to work at the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases because of the way diabetes affects Native Americans,” Begaye said. Learning more about kidney and digestive issues could also teach Begaye concepts related to alcoholism, another serious health issue she has witnessed on the reservation.

Shortly before the internship application deadline, she learned about the opportunity from Jani Ingram, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Dirk de Heer, assistant professor of physical therapy. The professors helped Begaye gather the necessary materials for what turned out to be a successful application.

Begaye hopes to turn the summer internship into a post-baccalaureate fellowship, extending into the upcoming school year.

While she recognizes the busy time ahead will keep her from the traditional weaving and other activities she enjoys with family and friends on the reservation, she said she looks forward to learning and gaining skills for her medical career.