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ASU alumnus uses research, education to address health disparities in Native American communities

Portrait of ASU alum Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1998 and a PhD in molecular and cellular biology in 2007 from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will be recognized as one of The College Leaders for 2021 for his contributions to business, research and service.

October 20, 2021

While working as a senior research scientist early on in his career, Arizona State University alumnus Dave Wilson noticed that he didn’t see many people who looked like him in the lab.

“I really began to think, ‘Why don't other members from tribal communities have the same rich experience that I'm having right now?’ I had to make a career decision whether I was going to be a bench scientist for the rest of my life or think about ways to have a greater impact,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1998 and a PhD in molecular and cellular biology in 2007, ultimately decided he wanted to pursue a career where he could make a positive impact on Native American communities. 

He has since been able to achieve this through a number of roles he has held, including as a public health adviser in the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, as a legislative analyst in the office of the director at the Indian Health Service and as an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health’s Center for American Indian Health.

In 2017, he was selected as the first-ever director of the Tribal Health Research Office at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In this role he engages with hundreds of tribes to provide guidance, education and research that helps improve the health and well-being of these communities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that has hit tribal nations particularly hard, Wilson has worked to provide up-to-date information while dispelling misinformation. Last year, he led a conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the importance of coronavirus research, clinical trials and vaccines within American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

As a member of the Navajo Nation, Wilson feels privileged to be able to have the opportunity to help build a better future for Native communities. 

“I have the extreme privilege of working with the 574 federally recognized tribes to help them in any way that I can to improve the health, not only of this current generation, but of generations to come, through biomedical research,” he said. “It blows my mind when I really think about the impact and how important it is. We're really creating the pathway for the next generations to be able to take this and pick it up and carry it even further than we've been able to.”

For his contributions to business, research and service, Wilson will be recognized as one of The College Leaders for 2021 from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Here, he shares more about his career and his advice for students.

MORE: 4 outstanding ASU alumni honored as The College Leaders of 2021

Question: How did your program in The College help prepare you for your career?

Answer: William Burke, who was in microbiology, Yung Chang, my professor and mentor, and Rajeev Misra all taught me how to challenge myself. Each of those individuals always encouraged me to be a little uncomfortable in where I'm at. That really helped me to open my horizons to different things. The minority graduate education program also provided me the opportunities to really develop and really set me on my path. Their support and encouragement were key.

Q: Have you faced any challenges throughout your career? If so, how have you overcome them?

A: I took this position (as director of the Tribal Health Research Office) because it is all about challenges. There's nothing that I do on any given day that isn't a challenge. There's so many different levels to providing the greatest amount of opportunities for not only tribal communities, but underrepresented communities, to fully participate in biomedical research. …

Another thing that we've really begun to reinforce and communicate across the NIH is that when you go into a community, it's important for you to listen. What are their priorities? It's all about strategic engagement, and there's nothing that comes without challenge in that process. There's a lot of things that need to be looked at, addressed and refined to better include underrepresented communities in biomedical research as a whole.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?

A: My hopes and aspirations are to be able to bring the scientific community to a place where we all recognize and appreciate what it costs Native people to be recognized as sovereign nations. I think there's just not a lot of this understanding across the country about our history. So it's really important for people to think about this and really understand what it means.

Q: How did you feel when you found out you had been selected as one of The College Leaders?

A: It's an honor to be selected and to be amongst such a prestigious group of my ASU peers. I think that it’s fantastic, and all of us have made significant contributions to our world. I really appreciate being nominated for this, and I think that it should be seen as a group effort. In tribal communities, it's more about the community than it is about the individual. My professors at ASU, my parents and all of the people who have helped me along the way are the ones who should receive this award as well. They helped me better understand and tap into my real talents.

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