Johns Hopkins locates American Indian health research hub in Duluth

Melissa Walls and her team leave the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus but stay in town

Melissa Walls
Melissa Walls has been appointed director of the Great Lakes Hub for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, which will be based in Duluth.
Clint Austin | Duluth News Tribune

Story by John Lundy | Duluth News Tribune

A prominent American Indian health researcher has left the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus for Johns Hopkins University along with her staff of 12 people.

But Melissa Walls and her team aren’t moving to Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins is based.

Johns Hopkins is coming to Duluth.

Walls, 39, a native of International Falls and a member of the Bois Forte and Couchiching First Nation bands, officially begins today as director of the Great Lakes Hub for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health and an associate professor of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

With Walls and her team — which totals 104, when community members are included — bring with them to Johns Hopkins research under five major grants, including pioneering work in the area of diabetes among Native populations.

Physically, they’re traveling a little more than a mile, from the medical school’s perch in the University of Minnesota Duluth campus to a modest building just off London Road on South Street.

Walls and some of her team were in the mostly unfurnished building eating a pizza during the noon hour Wednesday to mark a graduate assistant’s last day with them. Even that informal gathering underscored the intellectual firepower Duluth attracts when it comes to American Indian health studies.

Walls invited each to introduce themselves, and one man identified himself as Joe, who was just visiting. It took Walls to elaborate on that — he’s Joseph Gone, an anthropology professor at Harvard and faculty director of Harvard’s Native American Program. He and Walls are collaborating on a study funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.

“Joe ... is hanging out here,” Walls said later. “And we’ve got a guy from UCLA in town — all Native people doing data research.”

Duluth also is home to the U of M Medical School’s Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team, headquartered on First Street. Researchers led by Neil Henderson, who was lured away from the University of Oklahoma, study health disparities affecting Native American and rural communities.

Additionally, Laura Palombi of the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy’s Duluth campus is co-leader of a team awarded $1.5 million in federal grants to fight the opioid crisis in northern Minnesota, including St. Louis County and the Bois Forte reservation.

Walls, a researcher for the medical school for a dozen years, said leaving the school was a difficult decision.

“I love the medical school,” she said. “I mean, the mission is American Indian health. So that’s why I was there.”

She emphasized that the decision was made by the team, not by her.

“The way we all came together to decide to make the move was one of the most emotional work days I've ever had,” Walls said.

Still, it was Walls who attracted the attention of Johns Hopkins, where she has served recently as a visiting faculty member.

“I’ve known Melissa probably seven or eight years,” said Allison Barlow, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. “I admire her work so much. She’s doing really important work that, I think, is not only important to Native American communities but really … will make a contribution to behavioral health globally.”

Walls said the “tipping point” for Johns Hopkins is an increased opportunity to apply the research she and her team have been doing and put it into practice.

“Ultimately, we thought, this is a different platform,” she said. “This is a different way to collaborate with the No. 1 public health school in the world.”

But she and her team didn’t want to move to Baltimore.

“It’s not that I don’t like Baltimore,” she said. “It’s that how do you do this kind of work when you don’t live nearby (the tribal communities)?”

Thus the Great Lakes hub and a move down the hill instead of to Maryland.

The driving ambition, Walls said, is to change the story about Native American health.

“Everybody knows that Native people have some of the worst health inequities in the country,” she said. “And there’s a lot of stereotypes in Minnesota, especially. The stereotypes of drunkenness, of being poor, of being lazy. … And my goal is that we as tribal communities and tribal people doing this work totally shift that narrative to a whole new headline. … So yeah, there’s health inequities, but there’s all these amazing bright spots. And why aren’t we talking about those?”

Barlow said the Duluth office will have its celebratory opening on Oct. 14, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Reporting by the Duluth News Tribune, read the story on their website here.