Navajo genetic scientist Katrina Claw bridges cultures

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Navajo genetic scientist Katrina Claw bridges cultures

The postdoctoral researcher seeks to increase the number of indigenous people in science
Sarah Guthrie

As a Navajo scientist trained in genomics, UW School of Pharmacy postdoctoral researcher Katrina Claw is on a two-fold mission to make a difference: As a scientist, she seeks to understand the role genetics play in Vitamin D insufficiency in Alaskan Native populations.

As a Native American, she wants to increase the number and impact of indigenous people pursuing science as a career.

“It’s not enough just to get admitted to a program or school,” she says. “There are significant burdens on underrepresented students. We need mentors who can provide support, and guide us through the system, particularly to find funding. I was fortunate to find faculty mentors like Drs. Wylie Burke and Kenneth Thummel who believed in me.” Burke is former chair of bioethics and humanities at the UW School of Medicine and a physician specializing in medical genetics, and Thummel is professor and chair of pharmaceutics and associate dean for research and new initiatives at the UW School of Pharmacy.

Claw also found support in organizations like the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. “When high school students meet me, they realize they can pursue science as a career and I want to encourage them in that work.”

Her life experiences inform her research. Working with tribal partners in the Northwest Alaska Pharmacogenetic Research Network through a National Institutes of Health fellowship, Claw seeks to identify and functionally characterize variation in genes related to vitamin D metabolism.

Vitamin D deficiency is a public health problem, particularly for northern latitude indigenous populations.

Kristina Claw
Kristina Claw in her lab at the UW School of Pharmacy.
Kristina Claw in her lab at the UW School of Pharmacy.

Limited sunlight exposure and a shift to Western diets may be some of the driving causes of insufficiency, but gene variation modifies individual risk.

With all that’s known, there remains inter-individual variability that is not completely understood. As more Alaskan Native people suffer from vitamin D insufficiency, pathologies like cancer, heart disease, and bone disease might increase. Knowledge of genomic variation associated with Vitamin D levels might be key to finding optimal intervention strategies to reverse the insufficiency.

Another aspect of Claw’s research is to actively engage with Native American partners by exploring their expectations for genomic medicine research. In the past, some Native communities lost trust in researchers who used tissue samples and data without permission.

“It needs to be a transparent, meaningful partnership. In particular for genomics, it is all about how you generate, store and share data,” said Claw. “The core of the UW’s Northwest Alaska Pharmacogenetic Research Network mission is to form and deepen connections with the communities with whom they work.”

She wants to partner with more tribes in the future to help them benefit from health research.  One possible outcome: a return to a more traditional diet that may improve Vitamin D levels and also support tribal efforts to keep traditions alive in the community.

 “How we communicate findings is important,” she noted. “We have to go beyond academic papers and work with tribal leaders to inform the community.”

“I am like a bridge,” Claw said. “I connect Native knowledge and Western science, but I am also walked over. It can be hard to connect the multiple cultures and ways of knowing, but I am sure this is the best path forward.”