Taylor Bhaiji’s father didn’t play much of a role in her childhood. He’s among the 43 percent of Native Americans who have experienced alcohol use disorder during their lifetime. It led to Bhaiji’s parents getting divorced and little contact with her father.

But despite his absence in her life, Bhaiji’s dad has made a significant impact on the 18-year-old’s achievements. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, she’s already begun researching potential treatments for Native Americans with alcohol use disorder, taking into account her community’s unique genetic and socioeconomic circumstances.

“Seeing the divergent outcomes of my parents, I began to question why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) works for some and not for others,” the incoming University of Pittsburgh freshman tells Healthline.

“I decided to research the most effective treatment for Native Americans battling alcoholism, bringing together knowledge and learnings from disparate disciplines,” she says.

Bhaiji aims to continue this research and eventually create a sobriety program that embraces Native American culture. She hopes her work will one day break down the stigma faced by Native Americans in getting treatment for alcohol use disorder.

We asked Bhaiji about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

My father has struggled with alcoholism since he was in high school. He was sober for a few years before I was born. But when my mother learned that she was pregnant with me, he relapsed due to the stress of the responsibility that comes with having a child.

My mother did not want a person who was in any way toxic in my life. As a result, my mother divorced my father, and he has had little to do with my life since my birth.

I used to greatly resent my father. I believed that he had made the decision of choosing a life with alcohol rather than choosing a life with me and my mother.

However, as I grew older and gained more knowledge about my cultural background, the resentment I had for my father’s alcoholism motivated me to bring change to my Native American community.

Seeing the Christian undertone of AA as a possible hindrance to Native Americans, I created a simple survey consisting of a few demographic questions and a list of the 12 steps of AA. I asked respondents to mark which words resonated with them and which ones did not.

It was evident after reviewing my initial test surveys that Native Americans preferred a more spiritual, inclusive version of AA that fully reflected Native virtues: harmony with nature, purpose in suffering, and respect for others.

Moving forward with my project, I plan to ultimately develop an AA program that embraces Native culture, so that Native Americans seeking sobriety will view AA as an open and accepting environment where it is safe to seek help.

Native tribes share a common history of trauma and oppression, but they are diverse in customs, language, geography, and other socioeconomic realities. Some tribes have gained material wealth through businesses, while others lack federal recognition and access to healthcare and other protections.

Studying with a cross-cultural perspective is vital for my research. In addition, biological, psychological, and social variables, such as gender, age, class, healthcare access, and historical and contemporary trauma, could all play a role in the precipitation of alcoholism in a Native community. Therefore, I must isolate multiple variables in order to find the true answer to the problem and develop solutions, which could be a challenge.

I hope to eliminate the stigma of alcoholism in the Native American population by embracing the spiritual traditions of our Native culture, reconnecting the links and relationships that were once broken. This, I hope, will help to heal historical wounds and allow Native Americans to explore opportunities in the wider world.

I hope one day to become a social scientist and to see my Native American peers standing as doctors and engineers and writers alongside me, amplifying the voice of our people through this nation, and restoring the strength of our culture.

Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.