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Minnesota medical school gets $10 million gift for Native American programs

Melissa Walls, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth campus, talks about a gift of $10 million to the school Wedensday. The gift comes from an anonymous donor from Minnesota who recently learned of his own Native American roots and will be used to establish a Native American Center of Excellence at the school. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 3
Dr. Paula Termuhlen. Regional Duluth Campus Dean at the University of Minnesota Medical School, talks about a gift of $10 million to the school Wednesday. Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 3
Benjamin Clarke an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth campus stands in a labratory that he hopes will benefit from a gift of $10 million to the school. Clint Austin / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn.—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 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 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."

Neil Henderson, a professor in the same department, was en route to Washington on Wednesday in search of funding from federal sources. Over the phone from the Minneapolis airport, he said the virtually unrestricted private gift could provide funding for parts of a study that federal grants don't.

The kinds of research his team does requires being physically present on site for days if not weeks, said Henderson, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation who came to Duluth from Oklahoma a year ago. Federal sources, such as the National Institutes of Health, don't provide funding for that aspect of a study.

"Part of my wish list is to have some capability for staying on-site," he said. "And that might look like either a freestanding house ... (or) a significant RV of some kind."

Heather Heart, director of development for the medical school, said the gift developed over the summer after the prospective donor contacted the school. He spent a day with faculty and staff "and basically listened to us share our story," she said. "I think the more he learned the more he liked."

The process of determining how the money will be spent is just beginning, Termuhlen said, and will involve faculty and staff, community members and the donor, even though he has given the school free rein in the money's use. One goal for her, she said, is further strengthening her faculty.

"The idea that we could endow professorships that would allow us to have leaders in programs that will continue in perpetuity is really exciting," she said. "And that's really how you get it done. You bring in bright people, and you figure out ways to keep them."

The previous largest gift to the Duluth campus of the medical school was $1.6 million, anonymously awarded in October 2012.

The medical school shares space with the University of Minnesota Duluth but is a separate entity.