Researcher on the Rise: Jessica Saniguq Ullrich

Researcher on the Rise, Jessica Saniguq Ullrich

Article by Judith Van Dongen published in Research News and Highlights

Despite the distance between Spokane and her Tribe of Nome Eskimo Community, Jessica Saniguq Ullrich’s work has brought her closer to her community. Since January 2023, Ullrich has served as a research assistant professor in the WSU Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH), where she is part of a large contingent of Native scholars who are conducting research aimed at reducing health disparities in U.S. Native populations.

What is your research focus?

I study Indigenous child wellbeing, which is my drive and passion and why I went back to school after working in child welfare in Alaska for 10 years. About 70 percent of children in foster care in Alaska are Alaska Native, even though Alaska Native people make up only 20 percent of the overall population in the state. That’s a huge disparity, and those outcomes have remained the same despite a lot of good efforts being made to change them. That fueled my desire to learn how to engage in research and see if it could help shine a light on what’s working, what’s not working and what to do about this problem.

What did your career path look like once you decided to venture into research?

I attended the University of Washington, where I got a PhD in social welfare and was a trainee in the university’s Indigenous Wellness Research Institute. As part of the work I did there, I crafted an Indigenous connectedness framework based on a literature review and interviews I conducted with Native leaders in the Alaska child welfare system. Connectedness refers to the interrelated wellbeing of a child, a family, a community and the earth. I added elements of intergenerational connectedness—connections with our ancestors and future generations and with culture and spirit—to that. During the process of developing this framework, which now guides all of my work, I learned so much about how to help children, families and communities heal from trauma by promoting connectedness.

How did you land at WSU and what drew you here?

After completing my PhD, I worked in Alaska for a few years before moving to Spokane with my partner, who is in law school here. That’s when I got recruited to IREACH. I really love being part of an institute that focuses solely on research. The co-directors I met with are all very knowledgeable and experienced. I felt like I was going to get the skills, mentorship and support I needed to pursue some grants that my community was asking for. It felt like the right move.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on tribal school development; language revitalization; and intergenerational health and wellbeing, all in my home community of Nome, Alaska. I feel like this could lead to exponential outcomes where we’re focusing on children, parents, elders and the community as a whole—not just individuals.

I have several grants that fund my work in this area. With a grant from the Spencer Foundation, I’m putting together a research plan for the development of a tribal school. I’m doing this work in conjunction with five tribes in Alaska that were selected by the state to engage in an education compacting effort, a process that authorizes tribes to operate and oversee K-12 schools that combine Western and tribal educational models. The curriculum for the new school will provide Native language immersion and will incorporate some of the ecological knowledge and community history that are absent in the standard curriculum. We’re starting with this one school, but hope it will ultimately lead to an entire school system that is more accepting of and responsive to tribal communities.

I also have a pilot project grant through the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington. It funds a project to develop, in partnership with tribal leaders, a connectedness curriculum that promotes intergenerational health and wellbeing across elders, parents, children and grandchildren. The grant is part of a training program that encourages Native scholars to pursue careers in substance abuse and addictions-related health disparities research.

I’m also a site consultant for a project aimed at improving youth welfare outcomes in Hawai’i and am part of a National Science Foundation-funded research effort to alleviate the burden of energy inefficiency and high energy cost in in remote Arctic communities in Alaska.

What do you enjoy most about working at WSU?

I feel really respected and heard as an Indigenous scholar. I have not had to fight for my research agenda—it’s seen as legitimate and important work. Here at IREACH, there’s a whole focus on research and we’re all on the same page about the importance of community, so I don’t have to justify and explain the need. This is my job. I also love the opportunity to work with my community, because I didn’t go after a PhD for selfish reasons. I did it to help open doors for them, so I could be one part of an interconnected web focused on promoting wellbeing and helping with the healing efforts back home.

What has been your proudest research achievement so far?

I feel like the best is yet to come, but one thing I’m very proud of and excited about is that I got to present to the staff at Sesame Street as part of a diversity, equity and inclusion speaker series. They asked me to talk about how to help families through grief, with a focus on indigenous communities. I also worked with them to create an education video on the topic, which is still in the works.

What is the big-picture goal for your research?

My hope and dream is that we can understand and acknowledge some of the trauma that goes on and that has happened in the past so we can shift, transform and change that in the present time to benefit generations we will never meet. If we can help our children to not have to struggle; not have to expend all this energy on healing from trauma; and not have to close their hearts to protect themselves, our communities will benefit and be healthy as well. So that’s my goal, and I’m not alone. I’m so inspired by so many people who are doing good work in this area.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.