Public Health research center focuses on American Indians, Alaska Natives
By Andy Gilmore | University Communications
AURORA, Colo. – The leader of a CU project to address crucial oral health issues among American Indian and Alaska Native children said this kind of research is why she loves being at the university.
Her outlook is particularly interesting given that, two decades ago, she ran the place.
The first female president of CU, from 1991 to 1995, Judith Albino, PhD, now is director and principal investigator of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Center for Native Oral Health Research (CNOHR). The center has launched a research project involving 2,000 children on Indian reservations, where kids’ oral health is a major challenge.
CNOHR is one of the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health and part of the Colorado School of Public Health, where Albino is a professor. Through CNOHR, Albino takes on health issues for underserved people — and remains in the academic environment she’s embraced since she growing up in small-town Tennessee.
“At least I’ll be in school”
“Even when I was a little kid,” she said with a laugh, “I could hardly wait to start school and, on numerous occasions, I’ve found myself saying that I never really wanted to do anything but go to school. But at some point that gets embarrassing. So if I can’t go to school at least I’ll be at school.”
The oral health project is both daunting and crucial. American Indian and Alaska Native populations suffer from “certainly the worst oral health in the country as a group of people, and perhaps in the world,” Albino said.
Her focus is on early childhood caries (ECC), characterized by severe tooth decay in infants and young children. The CNOHR works closely with the School of Dental Medicine, where Albino also is a professor.
Studies have found the rate of ECC is more than six times higher among Native Americans than whites and three times that of the general population. And that may be undercounting because some studies did not include children living on reservations.
The CU research team has launched two major studies. 0ne is on a large south-western reservation and one on a plains reservation, with more than 1,000 participants in each.
“Ninety percent of the children we have studied in the south-western reservation have ECC,” Albino said. “If children are lucky, by the time they start school they’ve been taken in and, under general anesthesia, had a complete mouth restoration. Then they are usually flashing stainless steel at you in school. The ones who are not so fortunate are living with a lot of pain and discomfort.”
Treatment is important; even more pressing is the need for prevention and education through basics such as oral hygiene and diet.
One of the main challenges for the project was to find strategies for prevention and education that were culturally acceptable.
“It doesn’t work if we go in to a tribe and take the traditional approach of saying, ‘This is what you must do,’” Albino explained. “Our approach is to learn from the people within the tribal populations about the problems, to consider solutions together, and then support them to go out into the community.”
That way, Albino says, “the trust is there.”
Connecting with the tribe
One foundation for that trust is Terry Batliner, DDS. Albino appointed Batliner, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and one of a handful of American Indian dentists, as associate director for the center. Batliner’s credibility often is the key to connecting with members of a tribe, she said.
To Batliner, Albino’s background as a psychologist is vital to the research.
“It’s the future,” he said. “I think having a psychologist run the research program has been a great help and it is essential because it’s all about behavioral change. It could be beneficial not just to dental health but other things, too.”
Although funding arrived in 2008, it took almost three years for Albino and her team to work with the participating tribes on an approach that they embraced, while also meeting all NIH and federal requirements for conducting clinical trials.
“It has been a real education for all of us,” she said. “We’ve learned about the cultures, we’ve learned about the issues that they see, and we’ve learned to appreciate the concerns that they have.
“We’ve also been fortunate in being able to build on the strong foundation of experience with Native people that has been developed by Dr. Spero Manson,” who leads the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health.
The biggest lesson for the research team? “You will not be welcomed if what you’re going to do is give some people a treatment, or even a prevention approach, and give other people nothing.”
So, no placebos. All tribe members are treated but those who are part of the control group are given enhanced services.
Beyond that research, Albino directs a senior leadership training program called LITeS (Leadership for Innovative Team Science). Supported by the Colorado Clinical and Translational Science Institute, this program takes a cohort of 28 senior scientists through a year-long leadership training program.
All of the Anschutz campus deans have participated, as have many department chairs and senior scientists from various disciplines. Albino also directs a Career Development and Leadership Training Program for graduate students and post docs through the Graduate School and often travels the country consulting or coaching on leadership and organization development issues.
Reflecting on the road traveled
Asked what she does to relax, she replied, “This is a problem. I need to listen to the advice I give to other people because I don’t do much other than work. I do like to hike, I learned to racewalk last summer, and I take at least one backpacking trip a year. I travel as much as I can and am looking forward to a hiking trip in Italy in a couple of months.”
Albino was born in Jackson, Tenn., the daughter of preachers and teachers on her mother’s side and farmers and merchants on her dad’s. She received her BA in journalism and PhD in psychology from the University of Texas.
An administrator with CU, she became CU’s president in 1991, inheriting significant financial issues. The Chicago Tribune referred to her first 12 months in office as the “Year of Living Dangerously.” Then things got tougher. She had loyal supporters but some faculty and administrators protested, particularly on the Boulder campus.
In 1995, about when many CU freshman today were born, the CU Board of Regents bought out her contract. Two years later she left CU for other roles, including the presidency of Alliant International University.
“I’ve had some rough times,” she said. “During my years as an administrator, it was not always easy. It was downright ugly at times but I’ve never regretted going into higher education.”
Since she returned to the CU faculty in 2005, Albino has gained increasing responsibility and recognition.
When the public health school needed an interim dean two years ago, CU turned to Albino. Then the Society of Psychologists in Management awarded her the Distinguished Psychologist in Management Award in 2013. She is a professor in Craniofacial Biology with the School of Dental Medicine. And there is her role in the LITeS program.
She doesn’t run the whole university any more. But CU, for a second time, is home for Judith Albino.
“The Anschutz Medical Campus is where my heart is – in health – and so I resonate with it,” she said. “I just love every day of being here.”