Meet Tsimshian scholar Alyssa Bader

Meet Tsimshian scholar Alyssa Bader

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Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
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Published On: November 27th, 2019

SHI Postdoctoral Fellow studying impact of Native food on people

One of Alyssa Bader’s strongest connections to her culture has always been food. That she is studying how traditional Southeast Alaska Native foods impact health, then, is not too surprising.

Dr. Bader, who is Tsimshian, received her doctorate in anthropology from the University of Illinois.  She is currently serving as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Researcher at Sealaska Heritage Institute working under the mentorship of Dr. Rosita Worl on a post-doctorate program funded by the National Science Foundation.

Bader grew up in Washington State. She did not practice subsistence much herself growing up, but sometimes went fishing with her family in Seward. However, she always had a healthy supply of salmon, even when she studied abroad in Ireland.

Bader’s research focus is on food and diet. “Food is such an accessible thing to study,” Bader said. “You connect with that. It’s something that is in everyone’s lives, it’s such a good cultural touchstone.”

As part of her doctorate program, Bader studied the ancient DNA of the ancestors from Old Metlakatla in British Columbia, Canada, to see what foods they were eating and what their oral microbiomes looked like. Then she compared that data to the eating habits and the oral microbiomes of current residents to see what changes colonization brought to that community.

“The oral microbiome is basically everything that’s living in your mouth. So there’s the bacteria, which is what I study mostly, but also, there’s viruses and fungi and all manner of microorganisms that are living in your mouth. Your mouth is like a tiny little ecosystem.”

Now, Bader is expanding on the project she did in Old Metlakatla. She will conduct a study on how consuming traditional foods and participating in subsistence harvesting activities shapes the oral microbiome of Indigenous communities in Southeast Alaska.

Bader will look at not just whether people do or do not eat subsistence foods, but what social, economic, environmental, and political factors influence their access, or lack thereof, to subsistence foods.

The oral microbiome has been linked to a person’s well-being, so studying it can bring insights to a person’s biological health.

“In Southeast, we’ve been eating marine-based foods for forever,” said Bader, “and so with my research I want to make sure that we’re thinking about how our microbiomes might have evolved, particularly in relation to those foods. And making sure that we’re not just generalizing about what an Indigenous person’s microbiome looks like and how that might have changed with the introduction of new foods from colonization.”

Her research will be conducted in four communities, two urban and two rural. The study will include an interview with community members and a mouth swab so Bader can extract the DNA and study it. The DNA will be destroyed after the study is complete.

For the study, Bader will create an advisory board with a member from each participating community. Additionally, each community will have a focus group that will help Bader develop questions for the interviews with community members.

“[I]nstead of me sitting here in an office deciding what the important questions are to ask … it will give me a chance to chat and introduce the project so people know what’s going on. And then get a sense of what they think are the things impacting that, what are the questions that we should be asking, and what are the products that they would want to see out of the research so that we can make sure that it’s effective, that there’s an impact from the research.”

During the study, Bader will regularly update communities on her progress. Once Bader has the data from the DNA, she will interpret the data with the community collaboratively and hopes that the community will be able to use the study’s findings.

This community-collaborative approach challenges many past studies done on Indigenous people of the United States and across the world, which were often extractive studies where scientists earned a reputation by taking Indigenous peoples’ DNA and leaving without ever bringing the results back to the community.

The consequences of this practice are that Indigenous people may not trust scientists, who in the past often disregarded Indigenous knowledge and customs.

In response, Ripan Malhi, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana and Bader’s former doctoral degree advisor, and other scholars founded the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING). This program aims to train Indigenous scientists in genomics so they can introduce that field’s tools to their communities, bring an Indigenous perspective to research, and become leaders in genomic research.

Bader, who participated in SING, also has an interest in this approach, known as the ethics of genomic research. She is part of a growing movement of Native scientists seeking to become their communities’ own genome experts.

“My hope is that because my research is community-collaborative, with the community having a lot of ownership over how we do that research, it will help alleviate some of those concerns… I think that another part of being here – working through SHI and being mentored by Rosita, which is a huge part of my postdoc fellowship – is getting that training from another Indigenous scientist, and that will hopefully help change things.”

Written by Lyndsey Brollini  

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