From Hilo High to UH Hilo: Pharmacy student researches pharmaceuticals through a Hawaiian cultural perspective

Tifaine Crivello hopes that applying tradition and culture to modern medical practices will help preserve and honor her heritage.

By Alyssa Mathews.

Tifaine peering into microscope.
Tifaine Crivello checks on cells she cultured.

This story is the second in a series on Hawai‘i Island residents finding a path from their hometown high school into UH Hilo’s pharmacy college.

A Hilo High School graduate now studying pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is fusing traditional Hawaiian practices into her pharmaceutical research. Tifaine Crivello, a student at the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, believes knowing the importance of culture and tradition can help in facilitating modern health practices.

Tifaine Crivello in white coat.
Tifaine Crivello

Crivello grew up in Hakalau on the Hāmākua Coast of Hawai‘i Island and graduated from Hilo High School in 2014. She then enrolled at UH Hilo as a Dorrance Scholar with hopes of broadening her knowledge in the field of science. She earned a bachelor of arts in psychology while also expanding her knowledge in various other studies.

“When I graduated, I was not 100 percent set on one particular career,” says Crivello. “I was interested in pharmacy but also in psychology, as well as biology and chemistry. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to further my education.”

As an undergraduate, her interests in the field of science led her to the SHARP Program, where she was mentored by Professor of History Kerri Inglis.

SHARP, or Students of Hawai‘i Advanced Research 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 program supports all under-represented UH Hilo students, particularly Native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders, to develop interest and competence in biomedical and behavioral sciences research to help them advance to doctoral studies.

Kerri Inglis
Kerri Inglis

“During the last semester of my junior year, I applied for and was accepted into NIH RISE/SHARP,” Crivello says. “Through this program I learned how to access documents from both the Hawai‘i State Archives and Bishop Museum Archives, transcribe original documents, and analyze primary and secondary sources.”

She says her work with Inglis “allowed me to solidify my zeal in research, to gain valuable experience and knowledge about endemic/native plants and the changing history of Hawaiian medicinal practices, and to build bigger questions.”

When Crivello began her research as a pharmaceutical student, she continued her SHARP mentorship with Inglis and added another mentor, Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dana-Lynn Ko‘omoa-Lange. Ko‘omoa-Lange says when Crivello arrived in the pharmacy program she didn’t have any background in lab research but was eager and motivated to learn as much as she could.

Dana-Lynn Ko‘omoa-Lange
Dana-Lynn Ko‘omoa-Lange

“Tifaine had the motivation and a solid foundation of theoretical knowledge,” says Ko‘omoa-Lange. “She has since learned many laboratory techniques and protocols. She is learning more complex topics such as cancer biology and calcium signaling.”

The nexus of traditional and modern medicine

In addition to her pharmacy studies, Crivello is researching traditional Hawaiian medicinal practices in a project titled, “ʻOihana lapaʻau: a history of Hawaiian medical practices through analysis of Hawaiian medical texts.”

“Thus far, this program has been rigorous and enriching,” says Crivello. “I am learning tons, and at a constant pace. It has been both a challenging and rewarding semester. In regards to my current focus, I am building my foundational skills in the lab as well as background knowledge in Native Hawaiian plants and studying the literature that is available.”

Inglis explains, “Our focus is on the history of Hawaiian medical practices through the analysis of several Hawaiian medical texts—mainly found in archives—seeking to understand Hawaiian concepts of health, disease, and medicine as demonstrated in the manuscripts of kāhuna laʻau lapaʻau, Hawaiian medical practitioners.”

“Over time I found myself being drawn to naturopathy or lāʻau lapaʻau, which integrates traditional Hawaiian healing with a spiritual element connected to place.”

—Tifaine Crivello

Although pharmaceutical sciences and Hawaiian medicinal practices may not seem closely related and difficult to study simultaneously, looking at modern practices through a cultural perspective is possible and helps connect the past to the present.

“In the interdisciplinary academic world that we live in today, the sky is the limit,” says Ko’omoa-Lange. “With the different faculty development programs at the UH Hilo campus [such as] Uluākea, faculty have really evolved in their thinking, their teaching philosophy and style.” Uluākea is a program that teaches faculty, through immersion in Hawaiian culture and language, about understanding indigenous ways of knowing the world. Faculty are then expected to apply the concepts to their courses.

Koomoa-Lange says it is possible to merge two disciplines as different as history and pharmaceutical sciences, while infusing a Hawaiian cultural perspective.

“For a PhD student in the pharmaceutical sciences program, you just need to find the right faculty mentors, have a vision of what you want to do, and the passion and motivation to do it,” she says.

As the research continues, Crivello’s mentors are hoping that it will benefit and strengthen her abilities in research as well as give her more perspective by viewing things in the modern day with an understanding and knowledge of the past.

Throughout her research project, Crivello has found an interest in these traditional Hawaiian practices.

Tifaine Crivello in the lab looking through microscope. She wears blue gloves.
Tifaine Crivello in the lab. Courtesy photo, click to enlarge.

“Over time I found myself being drawn to naturopathy or lāʻau lapaʻau, which integrates traditional Hawaiian healing with a spiritual element connected to place,” says Crivello.

Inglis says she has seen Crivello’s skills grow over time through continuing on with the SHARP program and her research.

“Tifaine is very organized in her work, but over the eighteen months we have been working together, I have seen her hone those skills and be able to think more critically about the information she is uncovering,” says Inglis. “She continues to organize our materials in ways that make them more accessible to our research but is also finding connections within the historical records that are proving very intriguing and beneficial to our work.”

As the research continues, Crivello’s mentors are hoping that it will benefit and strengthen her abilities in research as well as give her more perspective by viewing things in the modern day with an understanding and knowledge of the past.

Crivello hopes that applying tradition and culture to a modern perspective of medical practices will help preserve and honor her heritage.

“I hope Tifaine comes away from this mentorship program with an ever-increasing desire to learn, acquire and apply knowledge, to always want to dig a little deeper into the nuances of information and archival materials, to use historical understandings to better our contemporary predicaments, and to deepen the respect she already has for the knowledge the kūpuna had [and] have about health, disease, and medicine, most especially in the practices of laʻau lapaʻau,” says Inglis.

Crivello feels her research with traditional practices is an important aspect as a foundation for modern practices.

“My intentions are to build off of these foundational experiences and skills to develop pharmaceuticals that are derived from Native Hawaiian plants,” she explains. “I want to connect traditional and modern practices, as I believe you cannot have one without the other. There is great value in studying and understanding the ʻike pili ʻoihana, professional knowledge, of kāhuna lāpaʻau. However, the world we live in today has different demands to be met. For this reason, I see the importance of adapting to those needs, for example, formulating pharmaceuticals that can be accessed and utilized easily by the community.”

Furthermore, as someone who hails from Hawai’i, Crivello hopes that applying tradition and culture to a modern perspective of medical practices will help to preserve and honor her heritage.

“Born and raised on the Big Island, I strongly believe in the preservation of our multicultural community and want to see it thrive,” she says. “One way is through the health and healing of our people.”

 

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

Also in this series:

Honor student takes pathway from Honoka‘a High to Eastern Oregon U to UH Hilo pharmacy program

Ambitious first-generation UH Hilo student on pathway from Honoka‘a High School to Doctor of Pharmacy, without ever leaving home