Post image for LaDonna BlueEye

LaDonna BlueEye

December 15, 2014

This story originally appeared in the Inside IUBloomington e-newsletter on December 11.

As an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, IU researcher LaDonna BlueEye is in a unique position to bridge her HIV research with her native culture.

BlueEye, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Health Science at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, has been selected as a fellow in the HIV Intervention Science Training Program for Underrepresented New Investigators at Columbia University.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the program aims to promote the growth of scientists from underrepresented groups who conduct HIV research.

“I feel honored to be a part of this fellowship,” BlueEye says. “In order to reach the American Indian population, the messages must resonate culturally while disseminating sound scientific knowledge. We live by word-of-mouth, jokingly called the ‘moccasin telegraph,’ and this communication is invaluable.”

BlueEye says she lives every day with a strong desire to decrease health disparities in her native community, a toll she witnessed firsthand during her doctoral studies. In that time, one of her family members was sent to prison for 15 years as a result of addiction, and her first cousin — or brother in American Indian culture — died from an aneurysm when he ran out of blood pressure medicine. In the months before she graduated, BlueEye lost her mother to cancer.

“Much of the public health materials available for American Indians fall into what I call the ‘add a feather syndrome,’ in which stereotypical native imagery is added to materials written for mainstream society,” BlueEye says. “The addition of imagery such as feathers, drums, or borders taken from clip art programs is not nearly enough to resonate with American Indians.”

BlueEye’s goals include creating a national advisory council comprised of American Indian LGBT members to provide guidance on public health messages that will be disseminated in their communities.

“To truly reach my community, we need input from community members linked with sound methodology,” BlueEye says. “In the old days, tribes had a scout who would go out alone and find a good place for the tribe to be. The scout might be gone for months or years. When they found a place with plenty of water, game and fertile soil they would return to the tribe and lead them to a place of abundance. An elder once told me that navigating the academic system is one way to be a modern day scout.”

In addition to programmatic activities, BlueEye will receive a $20,000 pilot research grant from the NIH, for which she has proposed an exploratory study of American Indian bisexual men. Brian Dodge, a nationally recognized expert on bisexuality and researcher in the Department of Applied Health Science at IU’s School of Public Health-Bloomington, will serve as her local mentor throughout the duration of the fellowship.

“LaDonna’s participation in this fellowship is a continuing mark of distinction for IU as a global leader in sexual health research,” Dodge said. “We are proud to have faculty whose productivity and promise continue to keep IU at the forefront of research and educational initiatives, while also having an impact on health disparities and making a difference in the lives of others.”