CNO tribal member selected to lead NIH Tribal Health Research Office

By Chris Jennings
May 1, 2023

Dr. Karina L. Walters, Ph.D., M.S.W., has been selected as the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Tribal Health Research Office (THRO).

In a press release, the acting director of the NIH, Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., said, “Dr. Walters’ wealth of experience and deep commitment to engaging tribal leadership in health research efforts makes her ideally suited for the position. Her commitment to community-based participatory research is evident in her demonstrated ability to sustain collaborations with diverse Native communities and conduct successful randomized clinical trials in tribal communities.”

In her new role, Walters will work directly with 27 different institutes and centers within NIH, such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Aging, among others. “With each of those institutes, my job is to build bridges and to ensure that they’re including American Indian/Alaska Native research (AI/AN),” Walters said.

Walters has had an opportunity to work directly with the Choctaw Nation in developing programs that benefit the health of tribal members. One program, Yappalli, is geared towards Native women and helping them become health leaders in their communities through exercise and community events such as re-walking the Trail of Tears.

Another program Walters has worked on with another Choctaw woman, Michelle Johnson Jennings, is Wakaya, a program geared more toward the younger generation. Walters describes Wakaya as “A physical activity program to get Native high schoolers up and out and active. Off their screens and out in the community and out in nature to do cultural activities,” she said.

Walters is the founding director of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute (IWRI), one of the first American Indian Alaska Native research institutes in the country primarily run by Native faculty and Native staff. Walters said the IWRI has had at least 11 training programs and has assisted over 410 American Indian and Alaskan Native scientists and trainees, from doctoral students to eighth graders.

Walters is excited to start her new role.

“I look to serve all Indian people and hope to be able to be at the forefront in developing science by and for our communities so that it could serve our public health and help us reduce our inequities and live healthfully,” said Walters.

Walters is a tenured full professor and the Katherine Hall Chambers Scholar at the University of Washington (UW) School of Social Work. She is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Global Health and the School of Public Health. Before her current positions, Walters served from 2012-2019 as Associate Dean for Research at the UW School of Social Work, overseeing and assisting faculty in generating $20-30 million in grants annually.

She has over 28 years of AI/AN health research experience, encompassing foundational science, disease prevention, health promotion, and intervention research. She has conducted social epidemiological research on the environmental, historical, social, and cultural determinants of health and health equity in AI/AN communities and designed and empirically tested tribally derived chronic disease prevention interventions.

Much of her early social epidemiological research involved LGBT, Two Spirit, and urban AI/AN populations across the United States. Additionally, she has conducted tribal-based intervention research in substance use disorders, obesity prevention and physical activity promotion, diabetes and depression, and HIV prevention. She has served as an NIH principal investigator or co-investigator on 35 NIH awards from multiple NIH Institutes. She is the first American Indian fellow inducted into the American Academy of Social Welfare and Social Work (AASWSW).

As director of THRO, Walters will work to advance initiatives to ensure tribally informed biomedical and behavioral research, enhance NIH’s tribal consultation and tribal engagement efforts, and coordinate AI/AN research and research-related activities across NIH and with other federal entities.

Walters earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and an M.S.W. and a Ph.D. in social welfare, also from UCLA.