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UW Involved in Education Project with Little Big Horn College

September 16, 2009
Two women
Audrey Plenty Hoops, right, and Crescentia Cummins, who are both members of the Crow Indian tribe in Montana, participate in a tribal outreach project with the University of Wyoming. Plenty Hoops is now a student at UW, double majoring in agroecology and environment and natural resources.

Anne Sylvester arrived at Slade Elementary School in Laramie on a windy afternoon, where she greeted fifth grader Ote Plenty Hoops with a big smile.

"Hey Ote! How's it going?" asked Sylvester, a University of Wyoming College of Agriculture associate professor involved in an educational outreach project with Little Big Horn College (LBHC) in Crow Agency, Mont.

Sylvester is doing everything she can to help Ote and his mother, Audrey Plenty Hoops, succeed in a place so unlike home.

If Sylvester is unable to meet Ote (pronounced oat), then her husband, UW College of Agriculture Associate Professor Steve Herbert, makes the trip.

"Dr. Anne and Dr. Steve have both been very supportive. They have become like family," said Plenty Hoops, a member of the Crow Indian tribe from Crow Agency, who was inspired to enroll in UW last fall after taking science workshops taught by Sylvester as part of a project with LBHC and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"Without Dr. Anne's help, support and faith in me, I would not have been able to go to UW," Plenty Hoops said. "She has turned into a mentor, and that is so precious to me."

One of the research projects Sylvester is involved with includes educational exchanges and outreach between scientists and American Indian students. The outreach activities started in 2006 and will continue through 2010.

"One of our goals is to provide educational opportunities for students at tribal colleges so they can become engaged in science and attend four-year institutions. These students will then have the opportunity to advance their degrees and contribute scientifically to their communities and society," said Sylvester, who has focused her outreach efforts on working with LBHC students and faculty members.

Sylvester and other researchers travel to Crow Agency each May to teach a five-day workshop on genetics.

Last year, Plenty Hoops was among about 20 LBHC students who learned how genetics plays an important role in horse breeding and determining horse coat color. They were also taught how genetics can be used to improve water quality, track natural microbial communities and how understanding genetics helps scientists discover treatments for diseases, such as diabetes.

A month later, Plenty Hoops and other LBHC students traveled to Laramie for a much more advanced workshop, an intensive four-day session to learn how to use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for molecular research and as a teaching tool for basic biology classes. PCR is a method for isolating and amplifying whole genes or fragments, and it is used extensively for most genetics research, for forensics and for DNA study.

"It is particularly useful for DNA diagnosis," Sylvester said. "The students learned how to use PCR to test water samples for bacterial contaminants."

Plenty Hoops and her classmates collected water samples around Laramie and from the Crow reservation and then went to work in a UW laboratory testing those samples. "We also studied DNA, something I had only seen on TV," she said.

Her fascination with science continued to grow, and soon she found herself visiting with Sylvester about what she thought would be an impossible chance to attend UW.

"LBHC opened the doors for me, and Anne Sylvester and her program really introduced me to UW and research science," said Plenty Hoops, who earned an associate degree in liberal arts from LBHC and then enrolled at UW as a junior, double majoring in agroecology and environment and natural resources

The journey hasn't been easy for Plenty Hoops, now 41 and a senior at UW.
In fact, she admitted, "It has been very hard, but I'm keeping my head up, working hard, reading, studying, going to class every day."

Most inspiring to those around her, Plenty Hoops remains focused on her educational goals despite her difficult adjustments as a non-traditional student.

"I face challenges in the classroom because, coming from a Native American heritage, our way of learning is quite different," Plenty Hoops said. "We learn a lot from our elders; they teach us verbally. We don't have the modern technology or the teachers who know genetics or DNA, and that is something I hope I can bring back to my people. We can use that technology and science to improve our waters and soils, our horses, our health."

This summer, Plenty Hoops was awarded a UW McNair scholarship to develop further her molecular genetics research project in the Sylvester lab. She is continuing her undergraduate research under NSF funding and is scheduled to present results to her tribe this fall.

"I have met with Dr. Anne many times for advice, to brainstorm and to debate about courses. I am developing stronger work ethics, responsibility and lab tools; I am learning how to study better and how to challenge myself in the classroom and in the research lab," Plenty Hoops said about her experiences at UW. "I've had to work really hard to be an overachiever, not an underachiever, and I hope I can share all of that with my people."

On top of all this, Plenty Hoops now knows people like Sylvester and Herbert care enough about her success that they take time to greet Ote after school, something she would never learn in a science classroom.

"Audrey serves now as an inspiration to others, demonstrating the ability and strength to stay focused on her goals in a challenging academic environment," Sylvester said. "She has several semesters remaining before earning her degree, and then she hopes to go back to Little Big Horn College and teach in science, or she may go on to graduate school. My colleagues and I hope, that by her example, she will pave the way for other students from LBHC to feel welcomed at UW and further their education here and elsewhere."

Posted on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

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