Sharing our legacy: Reflections from consortium leaders

‘Broadening the definition of success’ — Karsten Hueffer, DVM, PhD, says success goes beyond degrees, research funding

By Melissa Simon

June 3, 2024

Students are more than grade point averages or measurements of success on a table. They’re people who should be valued for their unique backgrounds.

That is one of the biggest things that Karsten Hueffer, DVM, PhD learned as the principal investigator for Biomedical Learning and Student Training (BLaST), the NIH-funded BUilding Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) grant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

In the next part of the Diversity Program Consortium series, “Sharing our legacy: Reflections from consortium leaders,” Hueffer shares how BLaST created a supportive community for students based on their needs and seeing them as individuals.  

Hueffer is also a principal investigator for an NIH U-RISE project at UAF, as well as the dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, the associate dean of the Department of Veterinary Medicine and a professor of microbiology. 

Read the Q&A below to see what Hueffer said about his work with the DPC. Watch his full interview, “Broadening the definition of success.” 

Q: What is the project you work on for the DPC?

A: Initially [BLaST] started 11 years ago now . . . Alaska [is] a big state and we have a lot of very remote, rural communities . . . that can only be reached by airplane or boat in the summer or snow machines in the wintertime. A lot of students that come from these very isolated, very small communities really struggle when they come to the big city of Fairbanks . . . [so] we were looking at ways of how we can increase the success of students from these areas [that] are largely indigenous areas . . . at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, specifically in areas that relate to biomedical research and health careers.

Q: What is one of the biggest impacts of the project so far?

A: The biggest impact of our program is, I think, our students [and] an approach that centers around the One Health idea that is the idea that animals, the environment and people are really linked in their health very closely and that in order to have optimal health for one you need optimal health for all. . . . I really think the student impact or the impact that our program had on our students that participated in the program is really the impact that I get most satisfaction out of as one of the leaders of the BLaST program.  

Q: How did the One Health concept come about?

A: Depending on how you're looking at it, it’s either a really old idea that was revived a couple of decades ago or it is a new idea that really started largely . . . in the veterinary world where we looked at zoonotic diseases–so diseases that spread from animal to people and how they affect human health. . . . About 10 years ago [when] we started the BLaST program, it was really transferring this idea from the research into the educational realm where we utilize this idea to really engage students [because] for us, it was an opportunity to engage students with something that was meaningful in their cultural and personal context.

Q: What is something positive that’s happened as a result of your project?

A: We were able to build this supportive community that really supported the students as human beings, not just as students, so it's not just about GPAs and not just about going to grad school but really looking at what it is that the students need . . . to be successful.

Q: What is the most meaningful lesson you learned from your project?

A: For me it's really that we have to look at students as holistic individuals that have a lot of strength, a lot of challenges and . . . a student who has a cultural context. We have to look at all of that. It’s really a person who's valued as a person and has to be supported as a person. That would be, for me, kind of one of the biggest outcomes at a personal level from this program. 

Q: What do you hope will be the legacy of your work?

A: I hope that this individual, holistic advising and seeing the student as a whole person is going to be something that's going to be living on at UAF in several programs at a larger scale. I hope that we can move a little bit towards a broadening of the definition of success at the national level so that it is not just how many students go into a PhD program in biomedical sciences and become an R01 funded independent biomedical researcher. . . . Most of our students are first-generation coming from these small villages [and] educational opportunities are just not the same [so] if we get students from these communities to graduate and [then] do meaningful work in these communities . . . that is a success, even if it's not a measurable success in some data reporting table.  

Hueffer’s interview is part of the “Sharing our legacy: Reflections from consortium leaders” series that will be released through the spring of 2024.

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The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.

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