As the first Lakota woman to earn a doctorate degree in environmental engineering, Otakuye Conroy-Ben ’98 has made her parents and her tribal community very proud. Conroy-Ben has three degrees – one being a bachelor’s in chemistry from Notre Dame – serves as an assistant professor at Arizona State University and received the 2019 Technical Excellence Award from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of reasons for their pride. The reason that looms the largest, though, is that Conroy-Ben brings her work in wastewater epidemiology back to her community.
“I knew I wanted to do research as a career, but I wanted to give back” Conroy-Ben says. “I thought that being more hands-on, finding solutions, would most benefit my community.”
Conroy-Ben has certainly found ways to be hands-on with her research. She was working with tribal communities to examine evidence of substance abuse in their wastewater when that public health concern was eclipsed by another: the coronavirus. It soon became clear that Conroy-Ben could apply her research to the emerging crisis and the federal calls for funding proposals to investigate the virus’ impacts.
“We knew right away. We had already been working with a number of tribal communities in this area of wastewater epidemiology measuring different substances. We had already been getting letters of support. We had already visited wastewater treatment facilities. We had already built those relationships, and so when it was time to apply for funding, we knew who we wanted to work with,” Conroy-Ben says.
Building relationships is critical when conducting research in any community, but it’s especially important when working with a tribe.
“Historically, researchers have worked with tribes, but it was more for personal, selfish reasons – to promote their own career. They wouldn’t return data back to the tribe.”
Conroy-Ben recalls a particularly egregious example. In the 1990s, the Havasupai Tribe donated their blood to look for genetic links to diabetes, but researchers from Arizona State used the data in other ways, publishing papers about inbreeding, alcoholism, and the origin and migration of the tribe from Asia – all without the Havasupai’s consent.
“For that reason, many tribes will not do research with ASU. They won’t do research at all.”
Some tribes still do, but they always maintain ownership of the data collected, which means they can decide whether the researchers are allowed to publish the name of their tribe or even if they’re allowed to publish the research at all. Between these restrictions, the time it takes to build a relationship, and how selective tribes can be about who they work with, there are few researchers who take on these projects.
“There are many interested researchers who want to work with tribal communities, but for some reason or another, they might not have the patience to try to develop a positive rapport,” Conroy-Ben says. “Researchers just generally don’t know how to work with tribes. There needs to be some type of cultural education. And because researchers don’t know how to do that, tribes just really are not going to take the time to explain things to them, how to work with the tribe appropriately.”
Conroy-Ben did put in the appropriate time, and she is now leading two federal grants, one from the National Science Foundation and one from the National Institutes of Health. One project is aimed at analyzing wastewater infrastructure on reservations, while the other uses wastewater epidemiology to measure coronavirus levels in tribal communities where the pandemic has taken an outsized toll. By analyzing wastewater samples, Conroy-Ben and her collaborators can determine how prevalent the virus is within a community. They then pass that information along to tribal health administrators, who can use it to inform the implementation of public health measures like mask mandates and gathering limits.
Conroy-Ben has already seen this strategy put into practice. At a time when Tempe, Arizona’s sewer coronavirus levels were decreasing, Conroy-Ben’s collaborator, Dr. Rolf Halden, identified that the Pascqua Yaqui community in Guadalupe was not seeing the same decline in the virus. Arizona State notified the tribal health officials, who enforced stricter social distancing measures.
It’s rare for research to have such an immediate impact on the public, but Conroy-Ben always envisioned this application for her research.
“When I wrote these grants and they got funded, there was this expectation that we would give the information back to the communities,” Conroy Ben says. “It’s done as a service to the tribe and to help them address whatever concerns need addressing.”
To serve that goal, an entirely new organization, the Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Tribal Coordination Center, was created to liaise between the wastewater engineers and the health administrators.
“These two groups have never really met together,” Conroy-Ben says. “The health administrators, before the pandemic, were not aware that we could measure health by sampling wastewater. Wastewater engineers are aware of all the human pathogens that can be in wastewater, but as far as tracking community health, they weren’t aware of that.”
The center’s work will not be limited to the current pandemic, though. The methods Conroy-Ben is employing on this project can be used to monitor a variety of health metrics, including levels of substance abuse, the flu, and biomarkers for diabetes, a matter of particular concern for tribal communities.
With these grants, Conroy-Ben has been able to marry her academic and research goals with her desire to give back, two efforts that have not always lined up.
“There’s this disconnect, where as junior faculty, I’m supposed to be publishing right away. And when I work with tribal communities, it takes years just to get the relationship going and get approvals. And even at that point, they may not allow you to publish your findings. And so I hope that academia recognizes that. That working with our tribal communities takes time, and that even though there may not be a tangible outcome of the research, that as a public institution like ASU, we are still educating. We’re still doing that work with tribal communities,”