Preventing Diabetes and Helping Native Populations
Leslie Schulz: PhD
Executive Dean, College of Health and Human Services
College of Health and Human Services
Modern history is studded with stories of scientists who have made valuable contributions to understanding and improving public health. Leslie Schulz, who has served as Executive Dean of the College of Health and Human Services since 2007, has already made a big impact. As a leading researcher into the causes of Type 2 diabetes among Pima Indians, Schulz and her research team found compelling evidence that the disease's development is determined more by environmental factors—such as diet and activity levels—than genetic susceptibility. That finding, however, was the result of more than a decade of work on a long-term National Institute for Health-funded research project. For Schulz, her involvement with the project began in 1990 in a remote Mexican village.
"There were Pima Indians in two totally different environments—Mexico and Arizona—and nobody had ever determined whether the Mexican Pima had diabetes or not," said Schulz. "A group of us researchers drove, on a road that had just opened, to this little community, not having a clue as to what we would find. After a small pilot project, it appeared that the Mexican Pima didn't have diabetes. Afterward, I applied for funding to compare the Pima who live in that community to the local non-Pima, and then to the Pima in Arizona. Then we had two groups who were genetically the same in different environments and two groups who were genetically different in the same environment."
In an opportunity that is often rare for public health researchers, Schulz was able to study two genetically identical groups of people who lived in completely different environments. The Mexican Pima lived in a remote region of the country that was almost completely untouched by modern civilization, while the Pima Indians of Arizona were frequently exposed to all the trappings—good and bad—of life in the United States. After years of research, Schulz and her team were ultimately able to determine that environmental factors played the largest role in the development of Type 2 diabetes, which means that the disease is largely preventable—even among populations that are genetically susceptible.
Following that powerful discovery, Schulz now has another opportunity to break new research barriers: fifteen years after the Mexican Pima were introduced to roads, the modern world has become more and more part of their lives. Beginning this summer, she will be directing another research team that heads back to Mexico to study the effects of a changing environment on a population, and to provide health care to that same group of people.
"This will be the first time that anyone has ever followed the same population in the same location through an environmental change," says Schulz. "It is really a very unique opportunity. The community seems very, very welcoming, they like us there—we're actually providing a medical service that they wouldn't have otherwise. We make sure that every person who is diagnosed has access to medication. And, hopefully, a year from now, we'll be able to determine the impact on genetically susceptible people versus those who are not susceptible when particular changes take place in the environment."
As part of the new research opportunity, her team includes faculty from Northern Arizona University for the first time. This addition, says Schulz, will make for some very beneficial changes to the scope of the project.
"Our team now includes Cruz Begay, who is a Pima Indian, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Sciences," Schulz says, "In over 40 years of studying the Arizona Pima, there has never been a Pima investigator on this project, until now. She brings such a different perspective, and I'm very excited about that. Jennifer Klaus, who is an Assistant Professor in Dental Hygiene, will also be incorporating an oral health component into this project that has never been there before."
Schulz's passion for trying to improve the lives of the Native American population is also evident in her work at Northern Arizona University. One of Schulz's key strategic goals for the College of Health and Human Services is to expand the range of health profession opportunities available to Native American students.
"One of my major goals when I came here was to make the College of Health and Human Services the premier institution for educating Native American health professionals," says Schulz. "I've served in a number of different places that have served Native Americans, have worked with the Pima Indians for the past 20 years, and have seen the health care needs that Native Americans have. It's been a focus of what I've been doing for a long time."
Ultimately, Schulz hopes her work, both as a researcher and as Executive Dean of the College of Health and Human Services, can serve as an example to those she now seeks to mentor.
"The thing that excites me most is getting students and faculty excited about the types of research I do. I love interacting with them, and seeing them get excited about research possibilities. Maybe 15 years from now, those students and faculty will be the ones doing the follow-up research."