Neurobiologist Stan Nakanishi, Hilo High grad to tenure at UH Hilo

At the foundation of Stan Nakanishi’s teaching and research is an ethos of always connecting culture and community in his work. “There are lots of interconnections among people, ideas, and goals. Just acknowledging and appreciating those connections has some benefit.”

Stan Nakanishi pictured with city of Zurich in background.
Stan Nakanishi in Zurich, Switzerland, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

By Jordan Hemmerly.
This story is part of a series on newly tenured faculty.

A goal of biologist Stan Nakanishi in his teaching and research at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is to provide students with a multitude of ways to express their excellence.

“I encourage students to be curious, to learn a little extra, to try out something new, to take a chance and push back at boundaries and limitations,” he says.

Students rave about the recently tenured and promoted associate professor who has taught genetics, intermediate cell and molecular biology at the UH Hilo Department of Biology since 2015.

“He is a really good professor and definitely makes you interested in the class he is teaching,” writes a student on the Rate My Professor website where the biology professor has a 5/5 rating. “This is the second time I am taking one of his classes and he is always so good at giving feedback. He’s a little strict in some areas of grading but he is always willing to hear you out. Probably one of the best professors I have had at this school.”

Another one of many similar critiques says, “He makes the class really interesting and explains things really well. Get ready to have deep conversations and to have fun. Probably one of my favorite professors.”

Nakanishi graduated from Hilo High School in 1995, and went on to receive a bachelor of arts in psychology from Ithaca College, NY. He then continued on to graduate school but took the path of going directly into a doctoral degree in neuroscience from Emory University, Atlanta, GA. He did his first postdoctoral research at the University of Basel in Switzerland. His second postdoctoral position was at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, where he was a research assistant professor with a focus in cellular neuroscience at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.


Now Associate Professor Nakanishi is back home on Hawai‘i Island, tenured at UH Hilo, and well published in the field of neurobiology. Recent publications include spinal cord studies, investigations into compounds that possesses antiseizure and neuroprotective properties,  exploration of the regeneration of nerves, and finding the success of cannabinoids (the organic substances in cannabis) in recovering learning and memory after traumatic brain injury.

His current research focuses on investigating the effects of compounds derived from native Hawaiian plants on neurotransmitters. Due to Covid, his research lab at UH Hilo is still closed, but he aims to restart his projects in the fall focusing on two main research areas. The first is searching for novel antibiotic compounds in native Hawaiian plants, and the second is investigating the regeneration of the nervous system.

An open journal showing handwritten notes.
An old Hawaiian manuscript that has been transcribed at Stan Nakanishi’s Lab and used as a starting point for candidate plants and compounds. (Courtesy photo/SHARP)

In the search for antibiotic compounds, Nakanishi’s research team was fortunate to connect with some old, unpublished hand-written manuscripts by several Kahuna La‘au Lapa‘au (highly-trained practitioners of Hawaiian plant-based medicine). ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) experts at Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language helped with the translations.

“Based on some of these writings and following various family stories, students in my lab have assembled a library of dozens of plant extracts, and we test these extracts to see if they can inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria,” Nakanishi explains. Other units on campus help with this work: Help with plant extracts comes from the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, help with bacteria comes from Professor of Biology Jon Awaya, and funding comes from the UH Hilo seed money grant program.

The long-term goal of the work is to contribute to a better appreciation of native Hawaiian medicine and discover new treatments for modern diseases.

Nakanishi has also served as a mentor for UH Hilo’s Students of Hawai’i Advanced Research Program or SHARP. Students in the program work directly with a faculty mentor on a research project to gain or sharpen specific skills for their ultimate career goals. Several of Nakanishi’s SHARP students have received prestigious awards and honorable mention for their work on antibacterial efficacy of native Hawaiian plant extracts.

Some of the students who have worked with Nakanishi on various research projects have gone on to pursue medicine through furthering their education in pharmacy, medical school, nursing, physician’s assistant programs, and graduate school.

Three photos: an old manuscript, vials in the lab, and a petri dish with spore growth.
At left, an example of the old Hawaiian manuscripts transcribed at Stan Nakanishi’s Lab and used as a starting point for candidate plants and compounds. Center, an example of the effect of one plant extract and how it affects the growth of the pathogenic bacteria Bacillus. At right, a set of plant extracts the research team studied. (Courtesy photos/SHARP)

The other part of the lab focuses on studying the regeneration of the nervous system.

This set of projects began with the support of Matthew Geddis, a biomedical scientist and marine biologist from The City University of New York, who spent a sabbatical at Nakanishi’s Hilo lab. He shared his interests in the regeneration process in a species of flatworms called Planaria. If a planaria’s body gets damaged or cut into pieces, it has the incredible ability to regenerate each piece; it can even regrow its brain and eyes.

“Students in my lab have been investigating the timing of this regeneration process, changes in behavior as their nervous system regrows, and testing various terrestrial and marine plant extracts to see if they can alter the regeneration,” says Nakanishi.

It’s all about connections

Always quick to name all the units and people who contribute to his work, Nakanishi believes “there are many threads that connect us all, and make our lives better, maybe in ways that aren’t obvious.”

“I think that when we look at our culture and community, there are lots of interconnections among people, ideas, and goals,” he says. “Just acknowledging and appreciating those connections has some benefit.”

He hopes his teaching and research highlights these connections, and notes that some of the most interesting work in his academic life extends beyond UH Hilo.

“I’m part of a program through my graduate school [Emory University, GA] to teach neuroscience to Buddhist monks at a monastery in India,” he says of the work that inspired him to deepen his understanding of Hawaiian culture through his research. “I traveled to the monastery to teach there, and through language and cultural differences, there was an underlying curiosity and interest in the world that we all shared, and I think that is a kind of positive strength that we can always nurture.”

He says he enjoys all his classes and hope his students do, too. He plans to continue his work with the monastery, in the classroom, and in the laboratory into the foreseeable future.

“I like my work and I hope I get to keep doing it,” he says. “Teaching, research, and helping students learn new ideas, this is a fantastic job.”

He looks forward to restarting his research in the fall. Students who are interested in research positions are encouraged to email Associate Prof. Nakanishi for more information.

By Jordan Hemmerly, who is majoring in marine science at UH Hilo.