By the end of high school Nicole Stern, a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe of New Mexico, had a list of her future goals: she loved soccer and wanted to be involved in sports; her father was a neurologist and she too wanted to be a doctor; because of her heritage, she wanted to serve American Indians; and yes, she definitely wanted be involved with the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP).
Today, Dr. Nicole Stern, 42, has accomplished her goals and done more for American Indians—and herself. In August, Dr. Stern was sworn in as the new AAIP president with a one-year term. She takes over the position of past president Dr. Donna Galbreath.
Stern is an assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. In her outpatient practice, she specializes in general internal medicine and sports medicine.
She is an advocate of educating the general public about the use and value of traditional medicine in American Indian cultures and supporting American Indian and Alaska Native students in the pipeline to careers in medicine and biomedical research. Stern also wants to expand AAIP’s efforts to promote exercise and healthy eating for youth as a step to prevent obesity and chronic disease.
During her fellowship in primary care sports medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, she completed a research project focused on identifying the age of onset of childhood obesity in an urban American Indian health clinic. While living in Oklahoma City, she co-produced a documentary film with the AAIP on AIDS that was distributed to Native American communities.
Indian Country Today Media Network interviewed Stern about her ambitions as AAIP president, her hopes for Native youth and her journey to her current position:
How will the AAIP, under your leadership, promote exercise and healthy eating among American Indian youth?
I will collaborate with a few companies and organizations to promote physical fitness both during the year and at my annual meeting. A few of those groups include the NABI Foundation [Native American Basketball Invitational], the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health with the Native Vision camp, and Nike.
How do you think Indian country can reverse the obesity epidemic? Has your research project on the age of onset of childhood obesity shaped your thinking?
This is probably one of our greatest challenges, preventing obesity. It will take a long time to change the culture of eating and the environment to make it more conducive to exercise. I completed my research in Oklahoma City to find out if obesity for youth started at a later or an earlier age. My research revealed that I was right—unfortunately—that obesity starts for boys at age 2, and not until many years later for girls. Once we can understand at what age obesity starts, then we can start targeting our obesity prevention campaigns and programs for children as toddlers rather than at the mid-kindergarten age for most programs.
How else can we reverse the obesity trend?
School policies will need to change to eliminate soda pop machines from schools and incorporate more health lunch options for children. Then we need to bring back P.E. [Physical Education] classes in the schools as those have been cut back dramatically over the past 20-30 years. I would also encourage the parents to participate in a physical fitness activity with their children as this type of modeling can be very important, especially in American Indian communities.
Given your experience with raising awareness of HIV and AIDS, what are your goals when it comes to preventative care and treatment? What do you think can be done to reduce the stigma in Indian country of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections and diseases?
Reducing the stigma of having HIV/AIDS is a difficult one. This is very cultural or personally dependent. I think the only thing that can be done to reduce this is to have more general public information so people are aware of the risks. Patients should be educated on using condoms at all times for any sexual activity to reduce the risk of transmitting and acquiring these diseases. The information to the public should be culturally or tribally sensitive and appropriate.
Do you think we should have more physicians in rural areas? How can this be accomplished?
I do think it would be in the best interest of American Indians and the nation as a whole to encourage more physicians to practice in rural areas. Many physicians have clogged larger metropolitan areas, and this could be due to better pay or more cultural activities. I would think the government and medical schools can work on encouraging medical students and residents to practice in needed areas around the country through the presence of more incentive programs.
Why did you decide to be a doctor? Who was the greatest influence in your career?
I decided to be a doctor so that I could better understand the anatomy and physiology of the human body. I have been an athlete since age 6, playing mostly soccer. Once I reached college I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. My father [Dr. Lawrence Stern] was a big influence—as I knew the comforts of having a physician for a parent. My mother, Joyce, also supported me, as well as my late great uncle Wendell Chino, who encouraged me to pursue my education no matter what obstacles I may face.
How do you think having a dual heritage affected your outlook in medicine?
Coming from two cultures enriched my life in many ways. My father is a reformed Jew and my mother is full-blooded Mescalero Apache raised in the Apache belief system with exposure to the Reformed Church. In many ways Jewish families are very similar to American Indian families in terms of family and cultural values and the ability to practice one’s religion in any setting. With my dual heritage I would say that I have a much broader outlook on medicine overall and am much more culturally sensitive in my care of patients.
What is your greatest passion?
I love sports, which is probably why I went into Sports Medicine as a career. Right now my main focus is my family and my daughter, they are my greatest passion currently.
What are the challenges of being an assistant professor of medicine and medicine practitioner?
As a teacher, it can always be a challenge when trying to figure out how to best educate your students. I have enjoyed the work I am doing and hope to return to academic medicine in the future. I enjoy working as a physician. Taking care of patients on a day-to- day basis is a huge challenge in the sense of wanting to make sure I am providing the best care that I can without missing anything.
What would be your advice to young Native Americans who want to follow your footsteps and become a doctor?
Go for it! But, before you do, sit down, take a deep breath, and study, study, study. Becoming a doctor is not easy, and many people will tell you that you cannot do it, but don’t listen to them. We need you. We need more American Indians and Alaska Natives to go into medicine and/or to consider careers in biomedical research. I encourage you to pursue your dream, but don’t lose track of that goal or let one bad grade get you down. Finding a mentor as a student is really important. I would also encourage you to attend one of the AAIP Pre-Admissions workshops if you are a college student. This workshop will give you advice on how to prepare a medical school application. AAIP also has a mentorship program for students interested in shadowing AAIP member physicians.
What would you like to accomplish next?
For now, I am focused on my role as president of AAIP. Aside from this, I hope to be the best doctor that I can be for my patients. I also plan to continue teaching and hope to continue serving as a role model to American Indian students and residents.