Alaska WWAMI student found path to health career at UAA

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

Ten years ago, Sofia Infante was a high-schooler with a passionate interest in creating a career in health care.

Growing from Chilean and Alutiiq roots, Sofia Infante, left, lived in Anchorage and, at 16, explored health career options through UAA's Della Keats program. Along the way, she mentored Carolyn Knackstedt, right, now a UAA nursing student, and is taking classes through Alaska WWAMI School of Medical Education. Sofia's plan: become a doctor and help underserved populations. (Photo by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage)

Growing from Chilean and Alutiiq roots, Sofia Infante, left, at 16, explored health career options through UAA's Della Keats program. Along the way, she mentored Carolyn Knackstedt, right, now a UAA Alaska WWAMI School of Medical Education student. Sofia is currently taking classes through Alaska WWAMI as well, with plans to become a doctor and help underserved populations. (Photo by Tracy Kalytiak / University of Alaska Anchorage)

As a teen, she participated in the Della Keats Health Sciences Summer Program and took part in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Short-Term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP) program. There, she assisted in a student research project - mentored by UAA's Dr. Ian van Tets - exploring symptoms of type 2 diabetes in rats that regularly drank alcohol.

Now, Sofia is once again at UAA, nearing the end of her first year of classes in the University of Washington's Alaska WWAMI School of Medical Education.

"It's fun to be back," she said.

'I didn't know what to do'

Sofia's life began thousands of miles south of Alaska, in Chile.

Her mother, Linda Infante Lyons, has Alutiiq roots. Though she was raised in Anchorage, her mother's side of the family is from Kodiak — her mother was born in Karluk and her grandparents ran a commercial salmon fishing boat off the coast of Kodiak.

After earning her bachelor's degree from Whitman College in Washington state, Sofia's mother moved to Chile for 18 years and attended the Vina del Mar Escuela de Bellas Artes as a full-time art student for three years.

Sofia's father, who works in human resources, was from Chile.

Her family moved to Alaska when Sofia was in the second grade and then back to Chile when she was in the seventh grade. Her parents divorced when Sofia was in the eighth grade and her mother brought Sofia and her sisters back to live in Anchorage; her father remained in Chile.

Sofia would travel down to Chile to visit her father and his family. Here in Anchorage, she attended school but just didn't feel excited about it.

"I had a lot of absences," she said. "I wasn't engaged, didn't know what I wanted to do."

Her life began to shift after she signed up for an anatomy class at East High School.

"I loved learning about the body and physiology," Sofia said. "I really enjoyed getting into those organ systems, and starting to learn about what can go wrong and how to fix it, and applying that to my own life and community around me. My anatomy teacher saw I was interested in that class, in science, and recommended UAA's Della Keats [Health Sciences Summer Program]."

Cultivating a passion for health care

Sofia applied to Della Keats and ended up getting into the National Institutes of Health's NIDDK sister program.

"At the time I didn't really know much about research or health professions or had any exposure to that," she said. "I really started learning about it as I was going through the application process. It gave me an opportunity to start looking at health disparities, how to solve some of those questions, to be the one asking the questions. Finding new information was exciting as a 16-year-old."

Sofia and the other teens started off having classes in Alaska WWAMI and lived in the UAA dorms with people from all over the state.

"I got to meet students from all different backgrounds," she said. "I started on a research program with Dr. [Ian] van Tets, following up on research projects from previous students who were in the same lab."

The research she assisted in involved looking at the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on type 2 diabetes.

"Which was interesting to me, just learning a little bit more about how diabetes disproportionately affects certain communities, especially Alaska Natives and Hispanics," Sofia said. "So I started on that project, then worked closely with Dr. van Tets and the other students. A student a year older than me was mentoring me in the program. I put in a lot of time at the library and a lot of time in the lab learning lab techniques."

She and the other students put together a research paper, traveled to Washington, D.C., and presented at the NIH.

"So that was coaching on public speaking and how to present, putting together a PowerPoint presentation," Sofia said. "You had researchers there who were asking you questions and you presented in front of every NIDDK STEP-UP student, which was a big audience. There were hundreds of students there. It was a really great experience." She laughed: "I think at that point I was ready to graduate!"

Seeing it through, via UAA

Sofia said the experience motivated her to take the next steps toward higher education - applying to colleges, graduating from high school, figuring out what she wanted to do afterward. She came back to UAA her senior year of high school and continued work on that research project. Then, she moved to Walla Walla, Wash., and ended up earning her bachelor's degree there at her mother's alma mater.

She returned to UAA once again in the summer of her freshman year of college to work as a youth peer mentor for Della Keats - mentoring the students, living with them in the dorms. She stayed in contact with Dr. van Tets and was doing research at the same time.

"That mentorship part was a lot of fun," Sofia said. "To have different students coming in and being able throughout the program to be [on] that kind of pathway - all the way from being a student to being a mentor to then coming back, to being a WWAMI student, and seeing what things they were learning about and some of the struggles that they had. Just being able to see it through."

Sofia felt she could relate to the new Della Keats students, encouraging them to learn about health-care professions and find different ways to overcome hurdles, excel, and explore what they were passionate about.

She had experienced hurdles of her own, "just moving back and forth between Chile and Alaska, personal and family problems," Sofia said. "And not having the financial means also to really explore a lot of different things."

In her high school years, Sofia had expected to work over the summers. Della Keats offered a hand up.

"Having the opportunity to be here, receive a stipend for living, not having to work during the summer gave me an opportunity to do something that was beneficial for my career down the road and a really good learning experience," she said. "I could develop a lot of really good skills and not have to worry financially about it."

Sofia brought that engagement in health care with her through her college years and tried to consider the various places she could make a difference.

"One of the main things was that exposure to health disparities, different challenges different communities face," she said. "I think I identified with that. During college I thought about doing research. I was also interested in public health — how to tackle it more from a systematic approach versus medicine, where you're oftentimes dealing with individual patients and having that effect. I taught for a couple of years, I did AmeriCorps, and really tried to figure out where I fit in, but medicine was always kind of in the background."

After graduating from Whitman, Sofia lived in Seattle for a couple of years. There, she worked at a community health center that primarily serves Hispanic patients. She also coordinated care for diabetic patients, highlighted diabetes prevention efforts and worked as a doula, providing prenatal care.

"I worked with a lot of women who had recently moved to the U.S.," she said. "That's what really got me interested in women's health."

Sofia moved back to Alaska in August to launch her medical school studies on the UAA campus, through Alaska WWAMI School of Medical Education.

"It's been really nice," she said. "I grew up going to the Alaska Native Medical Center, so now going back as a student, I'm getting mentorship there and learning more about the system, the different ways the NUKA model is trying to promote health and well being by focusing on preventative health and more of an interdisciplinary, team-based approach."

What's ahead in Sofia's upcoming WWAMI years and afterward?

"I see myself working in women's health with underserved populations," Sofia said, "and potentially incorporating some public health, community-based approaches to my practice."

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage

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