Coming back to CAIMH

By Catherine Conlan

Alumni Spotlight | Mary Owen Ph.D.

Growing up in Alaska as the daughter of a nurse, Mary Owen wanted nothing to do with medicine.

Her inspiration to become a doctor came later, when she was in Anchorage after graduating from college.

“I went to the Alaska Native Medical Center and saw that while the patients were Native people, there were no Native doctors and just a few Native nurses,” she says. “I already knew I needed to go back to school, and after seeing the absence of Native health professionals, it seemed that would be the way to go.”

Owen had planned to go home and treat members of her tribe, the Tlingit. As she applied to medical schools, she looked for programs that recognized the importance of getting Native Americans into health care positions to serve their communities.

The University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus has had that commitment for more than 40 years; the school opened in 1972 and graduated two Native Americans among its first class of doctors. Owen received her M.D. from the University in 2000 and completed her family medicine training with the U’s North Memorial residency program in 2003.

Today Owen is back on the Duluth campus in a new role: director of its well-known Center of American Indian and Minority Health (CAIMH), where the mission is raising the health status of Native Americans by supporting and educating Native American students pursuing careers in health care.

A new perspective

Owen had been working as a family physician at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Juneau, but the CAIMH job brought her back to Duluth.

“The point of the center is to help students get past the many barriers to obtaining higher education and help them understand everything you have to do to get into medical school,” she says.

And that support starts much earlier than at the college level. The center offers programs for students of all ages, from kindergarten to graduate school, throughout the year. Owen says she’s excited to be involved in medicine from a new standpoint.

“In clinical medicine, sometimes you feel like you are patching people up only to have them come back after two weeks with the same problem,” she says. “If we really want to address health and chronic disease, we also need to address the lack of adequate housing, jobs, education, and poverty — things that impact a person’s health.”

And that’s a big task. But by working at CAIMH, Owen believes she can address these larger issues by sharing her experiences as a frontline physician.

“I hope to inspire students to become doctors in part by sharing some of these experiences and to help with teaching by bringing in clinical experience,” she says. “My vision is to positively impact Native American health first by increasing the number of Native American and Alaska Native physicians in the workforce and second by building a bridge between the University of Minnesota Medical School and local tribes to bring research to the communities in a way that is culturally sensitive and appropriate.

“Since we know that minority physicians are more likely to go back to underserved areas, it just makes sense to invest in programs that are aimed at recruiting minority students.”

Returning to Duluth

Since her first day on the job at CAIMH in July, Owen says she feels like she’s hit the ground running. In her spare time, she and her family — which includes husband John Krumm and teenage daughter Elia — are enjoying Duluth’s culture of local food and outdoor living. “We enjoy biking, reading, hiking, and meeting folks involved in community activism,” she says.

Colleagues say they’re glad she’s back.

Interim regional campus dean Alan Johns, M.D., M.Ed., was on the search committee that chose Owen and says he admires her work with the Indian Health Service.

“That is hard work,” says Johns. “It takes a lot of determination, and I think she can bring that to our school. You’re trying to get students to relate to the future — well, she has walked the walk.”

CAIMH associate director Anna Wirta Kosobuski knew Owen when Owen was a medical student.

“It was very clear that that was the reason she came to medical school,” Wirta Kosobuski says. “Her goal was to become a physician and to serve Native communities — and that shows through in everything she’s done. She’s outstanding — so positive and strong and committed.”

Published on March 24, 2015