March 1, 2012
Kent Smith inspires Native American young adults to reach for the stars by digging into their heritage–and a little dirt along the way.
Kent Smith was never one to play the race card–and he doesn’t want his students to, either.
The associate professor of anatomy at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences instead believes in hard work, perseverance and getting a great education so that one competes on merit above all.
As a member of the Comanche tribe and the co-founder of Native Explorers, Dr. Smith has merit to spare. After a high school physics teacher peaked his interested in science, he attended Southwestern University in Weatherford, Okla., to participate in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA). And while he didn’t have an interest in human biology, he decided he didn’t want to be a veterinarian, either.
“I worked as a vet assistant for two years and witnessed animals being euthanized or having amputations–I knew it wasn’t for me. I also knew that the economies of being a rural vet would make it hard to earn a living,” he recalls.
After his eligibility for NIRA was complete, he transferred to Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. It was a course in ornithology at Cameron that sparked an interest in organismal biology for Smith. The professor, Dr. Jack Tyler, inspired Smith to learn more about vertebrates. With a dual degree (biology/chemistry) in hand, he then pursued graduate studies at Midwestern State College in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he met a renowned paleontologist and mammologist who solidified the trajectory of his studies and career. Smith earned a master’s in biology at Midwestern, and made a surprising discovery while working as a graduate assistant.
“I never thought I’d have a job that required public speaking,” says Smith. “The very thought of it made me uncomfortable. In fact, I did not enroll in speech (a required course at Cameron) until my last semester of coursework. But working with the undergraduate students while I was a graduate assistant showed me that I love teaching and watching the students’ learning process.”
Smith went on to earn his PhD in zoology at the University of Oklahoma where he eventually directed the gross anatomy program. Throughout his years of study in both undergraduate and graduate programs, one realization stuck: Native Americans were few and far between in college.
“The genesis for the Native Explorers program really began years ago when I was an undergraduate,” he says. “I didn’t have any Native American mentors, nor did I see many Native Americans in school. I knew someday I’d want to have a role in changing that.”
Since coming to OSU-Center for Health Sciences in 2003, Dr. Smith has taught gross anatomy and courses related to vertebrate paleontology as well as mentored students and developed his own research program in vertebrate paleontology and sports medicine. He specializes in the study small mammals, especially rodents and insectivores that lived 10,000 or more years ago.
When he’s not teaching and mentoring students, Dr. Smith is planning the next scientific expedition to collect fossil vertebrates and recruiting the next generation of Native youth for the Native Explorers program. He led his first trip in 2010 to south central Utah. The following year, the expedition took place in Beaver and Cimarron counties in the Oklahoma panhandle. All specimens collected are placed in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of about Native Explorers is that these kids are actually participating in real science through field research,” he says. “Data collected on our trips resulted in two articles being published in peer-reviewed journals.
“We’re also instilling in them the importance of good study skills and why they can’t rely on their Native American status to open doors for them. Native American graduate and medical students also serve as mentors–the kids really relate to them and as a result they often get interested in medicine and science careers.”
For Dr. Smith, there’s another motive for inspiring Native American students to pursue careers in science and medicine.
“At OSU-Center for Health Sciences, we have a goal of putting more physicians in rural areas, and a lot of Natives live in those areas. Plus osteopathic medicine is a great fit for the tribes. We simply need more Native American doctors here and in other parts of the country.”
That goal may someday be reached as the Native Explorers program continues to expand. While the field trips are a summer program for young Native American adults 18 years and older, the Chickasaw tribe now has a Native Explorers club for kids ages six to 12. To date more than 170 kids have applied to take part in the club’s quarterly events. The University of Oklahoma also has a Native Explorers club on campus, and Smith expects it to expand to OSU in Stillwater and other colleges and universities in Oklahoma and throughout the country.
“Another great benefit is that the program instills Native American cultural traditions in these young people so that they can carry it forward for the next generation,” Smith says. “Taking pride in their heritage is important to their identity.”
What began as an idea in a young college student’s mind is today a growing program to help educate and inspire tomorrow’s Native American scientists, researchers and physicians. For Kent Smith, it’s only the beginning.
“I agree with Reggie Whitten (co-founder of NEF) in that we see this program eventually taking hold nationwide,”, says Smith. “We believe Oklahoma shouldn’t be the border–it should be the epicenter.”