November 8, 2021, 1:37 p.m. David Mitchell — Alexandra Adams, M.D., Ph.D., developed an interest in global and Indigenous health during her training at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign, but her combined M.D.-Ph.D. program left little time for international work. Adams instead spent a month on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota at the end of her third year of medical school, and her time with the Sicangu Sioux people changed the course of her career.
More than 20 years later, Adams is still partnering with Indigenous communities, and her pioneering work in community-engaged research recently earned her election to the National Academy of Medicine.
“I really fell in love with the people,” said Adams, professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and director of the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity at Montana State University. “My Native friends and colleagues taught me how to listen, how to really sit in a group and listen and learn from the community. They’ve taught me so much about resilience just by being with them and watching what they have to put up with — everyday racism, dealing with historic trauma and current trauma and all kinds of socioeconomic disparities, as well as the powerful work they are doing in community revitalization.”
Adams was getting her Ph.D. in nutrition during her family medicine rotation on the Rosebud Reservation. She recalled being “horrified” by the quality and quantity of processed foods consumed there.
“I saw the commodity food being shipped in,” she said, “and then I saw the doctors coming in to deal with the diseases that the commodity foods caused. That really opened my eyes to the huge health equity issues that occurred in Indian country.”
Adams continued her training as a family medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, where she was subsequently faculty for nearly two decades, including roles as a professor in the Department of Family Medicine, founding director of the Collaborative Center for Health Equity and director of the Cancer Center’s Cancer Health Disparities Initiative.
Her residency training had a rural rotation requirement, so Adams spent six weeks on the Menominee Indian Reservation, which evolved into the longest-running of her many partnerships with tribal communities.
“I am so grateful for their teachings in our ongoing work together during our over 20-year partnership,” she said.
Although Adams initially practiced full-spectrum family medicine, the time and travel demands of her research eventually ended her clinical work. She now views herself as a bridge between the Native communities and academia.
“I think one of the most important things I’ve learned through this journey is that it’s really important to be flexible and to be able to pivot,” she said. “And that’s one of the reasons I chose family medicine, because I knew that it was much more flexible than other specialties, especially academic family medicine. It has really allowed me to both be of service to individual families, using my medical knowledge and skills directly with patient care, but then also feel like I’m a doctor serving the larger community. It was hard to give up my practice when I left Wisconsin, but I knew it was time to do different, larger things.”
After nearly two decades at Wisconsin, Adams took her work to Montana State in 2016. In 2019, she secured a five-year, $10.7 million National Institutes of Health grant for CAIRHE, which works to reduce health disparities in Native and rural communities through community-based participatory research partnerships. She and CAIRHE also collaborate with other public health stakeholders across the state and region. For example, Adams was lead author of a landmark special report on climate change and human health in Montana produced with climate scientists, physicians and state and tribal leaders.
CAIRHE also mentors junior faculty with the aim of developing independently funded researchers.
Adams, who remains emeritus professor of family medicine at Wisconsin, said one of the hardest parts of changing jobs was leaving behind the UW researchers she had worked with for more than a decade. She has mentored four postdoctoral scholars and dozens of undergraduate, master in public health, medical and graduate students as part of her research team. She also has mentored more than 20 UW and MSU junior faculty in community-based research, career advancement and grant writing.
Her mentoring isn’t limited to family medicine or even health care.
“At MSU, I mentor faculty in a wide variety of disciplines, from psychologists to nurses to sociologists, and even an engineer,” she said, “so it’s a huge variety of types of projects. It depends on the investigator’s expertise, and it depends on what the community needs.”
CAIRHE teaches researchers how to build equitable community partnerships and maintain them, how to write grant proposals, how to manage budgets and how to do community-based research within the context of a university.
“We teach them how to do that by giving them opportunities to write small grants for us,” she said. “We then review them, provide different levels of funding, and then they can go on to seek bigger outside grants.”
The relationship is circular, with mentees eventually becoming mentors.
“I feel like one of my roles is to help inspire people who want to do community-engaged work, community-based participatory research, to really understand that it’s possible to learn the best ways to do that and to find the best mentors and places for themselves to thrive,” she said. “Part of my mission has always been to train that next generation and ensure that this kind of work can be impactful and sustained, thereby improving health equity in Native and rural communities.”
Adams’ mentees include Erik Brodt, M.D., an associate professor of family medicine and assistant dean for Native American health at the Oregon Health & Science University. Brodt also was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine for his work in increasing Native American representation in the health care workforce.
Brodt launched the Native American Center for Health Professions under the umbrella of Adams’ Collaborative Center for Health Equity at Wisconsin. He now directs OHSU’s Northwest Native American Center of Excellence.
“I have many people I’ve mentored and am proud of,” Adams said. “It’s been my great privilege.”
Finally, Adams is working with community partners and Native elders to create a program called Turtle Island Tales that produces videos and other resources that model healthy behaviors in a year-long program for families with young children.
“This program is working to disseminate our wellness research to families and bring it into their world,” she said. “Learning from and partnering with Native communities in research and dissemination is a joy and an honor that I never take for granted.”