Meet the Faculty: Jonathan Awaya

Circulation Manager Holden Chao

Photographer Elizabeth Lough

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Dr. Jonathan Awaya is a biology professor and student advisor at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo. He was born in Kailua on Oahu. As a child he was always a science kid and read anything he could about dinosaurs and sharks in magazines like the National Geographic. His interest in biology was greatly influenced by playing outside and interacting with the environment. His parents were by no means academics, one worked in banking and the other as an elementary school teacher, but they pushed education, inspiring good studying and learning habits as well as independence and helped guide him and his two older brothers to find the answers.

Beginning in intermediate school, Dr. Awaya was always interested in studying medicine. Initially he planned on studying medicine and becoming a medical doctor. However, this was before he discovered there was a whole world of biology outside of medical school. Research sparked his interest, so despite starting as a pre-med student at Santa Clara University, Calif., he sought better research opportunities, transferred, and graduated from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa.

He finished his post doctorate at the University of Notre Dame, and while he had ideas of going to work for a big research company, it was suggested to him that he explore teaching. The University of Hawai`i at Hilo interested him because of its home-grown style smaller campus, unique student diversity and interaction, where students have an easier time interacting with professors, are able to seek help, and want to ask questions. Here at UH Hilo, Dr. Awaya was able to conduct all the research he wanted and continue to teach all while advising and influencing local kids from Hawai`i.

He has been on staff here for nine years. He teaches all the microbiology classes, a few graduate classes and is currently in the process of developing a course for non-biology majors called Intro to Cellular and Molecular Biology for pre-nursing and pre-pharmacy students. He teaches for biology majors as well as students on pre-health tracks.

Eight years ago he assisted in developing a pre-med program with only five students interested in medical school. He now has 60 students interested on a regular basis and because of his close interaction with students and faculty, these opportunities have led to mentorships with medical schools. His first group of students are on their way to becoming doctors and he hopes they can influence more students to follow the same path.

Dr. Awaya’s field of expertise is molecular and microbiology including topics such as genomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics. His work is not limited to just microorganisms, he also examines bioactive and chemical compounds, hosts and micro relationships, and how they may kill or work with the host through symbiosis.

He is currently working on a project examining a marine sponge that is riddled with microorganisms. The sponge siphons water and eats microorganisms that are in the water, but somehow this microbe survives. The microbe was initially thought to be a disease, but it is actually producing a pigment that changes the sponge’s color. This compound is doing something productive for the sponge, and it appears to be protecting the sponge from any disease that the sponge encounters. He hopes that the compounds the microorganism produce may lead to anti-cancer developments or other beneficial anti-bacterials.

He is very interested in antibiotics and any new type of drug. He is concerned about the growing problem of antibiotics being overused, creating bacterial resistance. Because of this, antibiotics we use to cure otherwise detrimental health problems are becoming less effective as bacteria grows more resistant to treatment. Some of these microbes are quickly evolving and changing. Tuberculosis for example, Dr. Awaya says, was never a serious issue when he was growing up, but now it easily spreads and is becoming resistant to the only antibiotics available. Dr. Awaya always has his eyes peeled for new treatments and breakthroughs in medical microbiology, not just for TB, but for all diseases.

While he admits that microbiology can be a dangerous field, he has always taken proper precautions, and despite having to suit up in labs just like the movies, working with flesh eating bacteria, MRSA, and other horrible microbes, he is always aware of the modes of entry and pathogenicity and works only with well documented pathogens. With anything science, the more in depth you get, the more you discover how much you have to learn. Dr. Awaya reads anything he can get his hands on, but he finds viruses most interesting. Viruses scare him to death, because they are so hard to predict and control, although they are not technically living organisms. Viruses affect everyone around the world of all ages, we are constantly surrounded by viruses that are always reproducing. He claimed that if you were to take a small handful of soil you will find millions of bacteria, then multiply that number by ten, and that’s how many viruses there are.

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Dr. Awaya’s advice to students is to focus on their main interests, to start somewhere and explore. “If you are interested in medicine, shadow a physician. If research is interesting to you, find labs, volunteer, and go to workshops.” He says not to go too narrow too early, explore. You don’t want to be in a situation where you get two years into medical school, not to mention the subsequent student debt, only to realize it’s not where you want to be. Dr Awaya advises to aim at an interest and don’t focus on just studying, because there are a lot of extra curricular experiences that will make an application to professional schooling and the work force stronger. He says if you have explored where you’re going to go next, and figured out that it’s what you really want to do, it makes the studying easier.

High school students often come into his labs and do mock research like graduate students. He finds them extremely motivated and passionate about their projects. Some of these students have gone on to attend Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Northwestern Universities.

Dr. Awaya enjoys living in Hilo and feels that it provides a positive environment to raise his family. The balance of education and the opportunity for outdoor activity including sports, as well as activities such as diving, fishing, boating, and off roading are important aspects of childhood that his children get to enjoy. “It's hard to beat kayaking and taking pictures of the snow on Mauna Kea in the winter months while friends in the Midwest are experiencing freezing temperatures.”