UH Hilo students in advanced research program present their findings at symposium

SHARP (Students of Hawaiʻi Advanced Research Program) supports under-represented students, particularly Native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders, who would like to do research in preparation for doctoral studies.

By Alyssa Mathews.

Duke Escobar pointing to his poster presentation. The words on the poster cannot be made out, but at the top is the title: Antibacterial Properties of Ohia Lehua, and the acronym SHARP in the top left corner. Duke is wearing a suit and tie.
Duke Escobar presents his research at the 2nd Annual SHARP Symposium, Aug.31, 2018, UH Hilo. Courtesy photo from SHARP.
Duke Escobar
Duke Escobar

Six students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo participating in the Students of Hawaiʻi Advanced Research Program, or SHARP, recently showcased their research at the 2nd Annual SHARP Symposium held Aug. 31 on campus. Five of the students are undergraduates and one is in a doctoral program at the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy. The students work with faculty researchers to develop topics and skills to conduct the research. SHARP is federally funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The students and their research topics

Kieran Long
Kieran Long

Duke Escobar, an undergraduate in biology, and Kieran-Tiaye Long, an undergraduate in psychology, are investigating the anti-bacterial efficacy of native Hawaiian plant-based medicines. Their mentor is Stan Nakanishi, assistant professor of biology. Nakanishi’s lab is using a native Hawaiian-oriented ethnobotany approach aimed at screening plants for novel antibiotic and anti-inflammatory efficacy. The researchers have access to a set of plant-based Hawaiian medicinal (Lāʻau Lapaʻau) manuscripts and are using that information to drive a lab-based screening process to identify novel compounds. The long-term goal is to contribute to a better appreciation of native Hawaiian medicine and discover new treatments for modern diseases.

Dallas Freitas
Dallas Freitas

Dallas Freitas, an undergraduate in chemistry, is researching key mechanisms of ion channel signaling in cancer drug resistance and the tumor microenvironment. His mentor is Ingo Koʻomoa-Lange, a lecturer in pharmaceutical sciences. Neuroblastoma (NB) is an extra-cranial solid tumor that occurs mainly in infants and children. It is difficult to treat due to the development of multi-drug resistance resulting in lack of response to current therapies and aggressive disease progression. The development of resistance in the NB cells also involves the response of immune cells and the tumor microenvironment (TME), which contribute to treatment failure. The objectives of this project are to identify the molecular components of ion channel signaling pathways within the TME that can be targeted towards effective treatment of NB. Freitas is learning to do live cell calcium imaging, confocal imaging, patch-clamp electrophysiology, and mammalian cell culture.

Dallas Freitas points to his poster while talking to visitor.
Dallas Freitas explains his research at the SHARP Annual Symposium. Courtesy photos.
Jasmine Hicking
Jasmine Hicking

Jasmine Hicking, an undergraduate in biology, is researching medicinal plants, specifically anti-cancer and anti-bacterial agents from microorganisms and herbal medicine. Her mentor is Shugeng Cao, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. The researchers are examining bacteria and endophytic fungi isolated from Native Hawaiian plants as anti-cancer and antibacterial agents. The team is also studying traditional herbal medicine. Cao’s students are learning skills in the use of modern spectroscopic techniques such as High Performance Liquid Chromatography, Mass Spectometry, and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance.

Jasmine Hiking and a group of people at viewing her poster.
Jasmine Hiking (center facing right) with a group viewing the poster presentation on her research.
Skyla Lee
Skyla Lee

Skyla Lee, an undergraduate in chemistry-bioscience, is doing research on synthesis and evaluation of antibacterial and anti-cancer agents in natural products. Her mentor is Dianqing Sun, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. The research focuses on discovery and development of antibacterial and anticancer agents using small molecule-guided and natural product-inspired approaches. Lee is acquiring skills in drug discovery, bioanalytical research, and use of state-of-the-art instruments such as nuclear magnetic resonance, high performance liquid chromatography, mass spectometry, and microwave parallel synthesizer.

Skyla in business attire, standing next to her poster while she talk to people who are viewing the poster.
Skyla Lee discusses her research with visitors to the symposium.
Nathan Sunada
Nathan Sunada

Nathan Sunada, a doctoral student in pharmaceutical sciences, is investigating neuroblastoma and the mechanisms that promote cancer progression through a native Hawaiian perspective. His mentor is Dana-Lynn Koʻomoa-Lange, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. High-risk neuroblastoma (NB), an extracranial pediatric tumor, is associated with poor prognosis. Koʻomoa-Lange’s lab is investigating the genetic mechanisms that make NB so aggressive and develop drug-resistance. Knowing more about these mechanisms will enhance efforts to develop more effective treatments for high-risk NB. This project also investigates the Native Hawaiian perspective of health and well-being and alternative treatments for advanced stage cancers. Through this research, Sumada is acquiring skills in mammalian cell culture, assays, western blot analysis, and laser scanning microscopy.

Nathan, standing in front of his poster, talks with two people. In the background are other posters and students talking to people.
Nathan Sumada (far right) talking with visitors about his research.

The UH Hilo SHARP (Students of Hawaiʻi Advanced Research Program)

UH Hilo SHARP largely supports under-represented students, particularly Native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders, who would like to do research in preparation for doctoral studies. The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and administered through the UH Hilo Department of Anthropology. The students are mentored by expert faculty researchers to develop interest and competence in biomedical and behavioral sciences research to help them advance to or beyond doctoral studies.

Lynn Morrison
Lynn Morrison

“Any student who wants to do some kind of research, we have them apply to our program,” says Lynn Morrison, a medical anthropologist and director of SHARP.

The program focuses primarily on fields such as anthropology, marine biology, psychology, and pharmacy.

“The whole idea is to get underrepresented students into the biomedical sciences and the biobehavioral sciences,” says Morrison.

The program connects students with mentors on campus who encourage them to contribute to the community through research. “They can start doing research on things that are important in their own community,” Morrison says. The program also implements aspects of Hawaiian culture and history into the projects.

Students are able to choose mentors according to their area of interest in research.

“We try to match [students and their interests] as close as possible,” explains Morrison. “We have about fifteen mentors. When students come in, they look on our website and they choose the top three people that they would most likely want to work with.”

A student can also choose based on a mentor that they’ve enjoyed learning from in the past.

Not only does SHARP help students bond with mentors, but it has also created strong bonds between the mentors themselves. “An awesome outcome has been the collaboration between mentors,” says Morrison. “We’re now starting to see more of our social science mentors actually co-advising.”

Morrison adds that the program also has done a lot to stimulate research collaboration on campus.

Basic training

When students join the SHARP program, they are enrolled in a Research Seminar course taught by Morrison that covers presentation and public-speaking skills in addition to learning the process of scientific writing. The seminar also provides students with the opportunity to learn from guest speakers.

Students accepted by the program are immediately trained and start working on lab research. “After they do all of their biosafety training and NIH ethical training, they’re right in the lab, doing protocols,” says Morrison.

The program also financially supports students in their position as research assistants—they are paid for 15 hours a week of lab research. During the summer, students work full-time at 40 hours a week.

Building confidence, building a skills

Beyond helping students gain research and lab skills, the program also helps to instill confidence. Morrison says one of the biggest benefits “is seeing the huge changes in students, seeing students who were afraid of even applying because they were worried that they didn’t have the skills or knowledge—you see their self-esteem, their confidence improve dramatically.”

Furthermore, students who have joined SHARP become more comfortable in communicating research and ideas. “All of a sudden they’re speaking another language, a science language that they didn’t use to have,” Morrison says.

The SHARP experience gives students the confidence and skills they need to get into graduate school and eventually build careers after college.

“We prep them for graduate school,” says Morrison. “We show them how to write their [curriculum vitae], we teach them how to do job interviews, how to do their statement of interests for grad schools.”

Students in SHARP also have the opportunity to go to research-relevant conferences—both nationally and internationally—such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science conference or American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology conference. SHARP covers transportation and lodging costs.

“We’re sending a small handful of students to an NIH conference in November,” Morrison says.

Story by Alyssa Mathews, a freshman at UH Hilo. She graduated from Waiakea High School and is a UH Hilo Chancellor’s Scholar.

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