Long Road Back to School


Bradley Roache Jr. Mille Lacs Band Member

Whatever your age, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be a successful student. Band member Dr. Casey Dorr is a prime example of how perseverance pays off. At only 38, he is a man of many titles: Investigator at Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute in downtown Minneapolis, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, and beginning this semester: student. 

"I’m back in school, working on a Master’s degree in Biostatistics as part of my career development plan," said Casey. "It’s odd becoming a professor of medicine and a student at the same time."

Casey grew up in Bemidji. A high-school trip, where he spent a week in a Mayan village in the rainforests of Belize, sent him on both his academic and professional journeys. "Your whole perspective on life changes in the rainforest," he said. 

Back then, as it is with so many high school students today, sports occupied a lot of his time. Casey was a starting fullback, linebacker, and kicker — as well as the punter. Basically, he was on the field for the whole game. But a broken hand in his junior year and numerous concussions helped put things in perspective. The summer before his senior year he made the decision to give up football. "I was like, ‘I don’t want to play football,’" he recalled. "I just want to be a scientist!"

Casey began his academic career at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Cell Biology and Chemistry in 2004. While at UMD, he met Rick Smith, Director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center, who took Casey under his wing. “Rick Smith has been paramount to me in my life, helping me, and getting me where I need to go,” Casey said.

 He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology and Genetics at the University of Minnesota in 2011, and has since either authored or co-authored around 12 peer-reviewed articles and papers that have been published in scholarly journals.

Dr. Dorr is a lifetime member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (S.A.C.N.A.S), where he’s on the Native American Affairs Committee. While he was an undergraduate, he joined the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in 1999, and is also a lifetime member. "Those societies have been huge in helping me find direction, find the next step… and just support."

He currently works as an Investigator at the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute, studying the genetics of drug metabolism and collecting data on why different people break down/metabolize drugs differently. "I’m investigating health disparities and personalized medicine," Casey said. "There’s really not much known about how to treat a lot of minority populations, because almost all the research is done on white folks, so physicians don’t even really know how to treat Natives, Africans, Asians, or Hispanics. It’s a whole new world of personalized medicine. Treat the person, not necessarily the disease."

Most of the time, he’s the only Native voice in the room. "I‘ll go to meetings and they’ll ask me what it means to be Native, and — no one knows anything. It’s so foreign to everyone, but it’s indigenous to where we are, and all these people don’t know anything about it."

Chasing the dream

But it’s not all lab experiments, meetings with colleagues, and collecting data. At times, it can be a lot like running a small business. There is a constant need for funding to pay for things like a lab assistant, various experiments, and analysis, so Casey writes and applies for grants. "I mean, I write a lot of grants, and most of them fail, but I’ve been having good success here, the last couple of years. You just gotta keep working at it. Keep chasing that dream. They don’t teach you that in chemistry. It’s a big learning experience."

For Casey, chasing dreams and setting goals are major keys to success. “"Find a dream or goal, and work towards it," he said. "And use your community to help you. Count on your people, because I wouldn’t be anywhere without my Ojibwe people. The main thing is community. That’s what my dad (Ron Dorr) told me. He said, 'Stick with our native people. We look out for each other. You’re gonna be okay. Stick to that goal, that dream'."