ASCC/ACNR STEP UP Participant Returns as Researcher
July 27, 2016
By James Kneubuhl, ASCC Press Officer
Ms. Mata’uitafā Temukisa Solomona Faiai, age 22, divides her time this summer between the Agriculture, Community and Natural Resources (ACNR) division of the American Samoa Community College (ASCC) and LBJ Tropical Medical Center, working as a research assistant for the “Development and Evaluation of Educational Materials about Gestational Diabetes,” a collaborative study involving the ACNR Health Communications Program, LBJ, Yale University, and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
The daughter of Sosene Usoali’i and Annette Solomona-Faiai of Leone, Ms. Faiai graduated in 2011 from Leone High School, then went on to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology with a Minor in English from Chaminade University of Honolulu in Fall 2015. This fall, she will begin studies towards her Master of Public Health in Epidemiology at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
While a promising career in medical research awaits her, Ms. Faiai’s work this summer represents a “coming full-circle” for her, given that she received her first exposure to the field at ASCC-ACNR as a student in Short-Term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP), a national program designed to provide opportunities in individualized research for high school and undergraduate students from racial/ethnic groups underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral research, as well as students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I participated in the STEP-UP Program from 2010 to 2014, both during high school and as a college undergraduate,” she explained. “I first learned of the program from my high school Chemistry teacher, Dr. Randel DeWees. My high school STEP-UP experience, under my mentors Francine Amoa-Tufa and Cecilia Tuionoula, opened many doors for me. As a Chaminade freshman, I worked closely in 2012 with Dr. Helen Turner, Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics for Chaminade University for 10 weeks on a summer project exploring the immunological effects of obesity. I presented our work at a national research conference, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, and received one of the outstanding awards in the Biochemistry category.
“In 2013, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland accepted me as a summer intern under the Office of Minority Health Research Summer Internship program . I worked under the direction of Dr. Kristina Rother on another 10-week project studying the influences of non-nutritive sweeteners on infants. This led to a travel scholarship to present our work at the Society of Advancements of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS) conference. I was also accepted to present our work at the Ivy-Plus Symposium at Harvard University in 2014, but was not able to attend.
“In 2014, Dr. Mark Schmaedick of ASCC-ACNR, one of the local STEP-UP coordinators, connected me to Dr. Stephen McGarvey of Brown University, who has done extensive research on obesity and type II diabetes in Samoa. Working under Dr. McGarvey, I became interested in public health research, which led to my decision to pursue a career in this field. Dr. McGarvey introduced me to Dr. Nicola Hawley of Yale University, one of my main academic mentors with whom I’ve been working closely. My other mentors include Dr. Helen Turner and Dr. Claire Wright of Chaminade and Dr. Nia Aitaoto of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.”
Dr. Hawley recommended Ms. Faiai for the current diabetes research project which brought her home to American Samoa this summer to work with Dr. Micah Van der Ryn of ASCC-ACNR, Dr. Bethel Howard of LBJ, and Dr. Michaela Howells of the University of North Carolina, and Dr. Hawley herself. “Mata'u has proven herself to be an extremely talented public health researcher,” said Dr. Hawley via email. “She is inquisitive, thoughtful, and reasoned in her approach to complex health questions. Her commitment to returning to American Samoa to use her skills for the benefit of her own community is infinitely admirable, and I'm excited to see how her excellent training will benefit those around her.”
While her experience with scientific research that began as a STEP UP participant has already taken her far, Ms. Faiai keeps a humble attitude towards her accomplishments, and also wants to encourage the many sons and daughters of American Samoa who distinguish themselves in the sciences but receive little acknowledgement. “Continue the hard work and persevere in all that you do!” she advises. “You may not be recognized now, but one day you will be when your passion leads you to a contribution that makes things better for our people. Remember, one of the most important aspects of research is delayed gratification.”
Ms. Faiai also expressed her sincere thanks to Director Aufa’i Apulu Ropeti Areta for the opportunity to work at ASCC-ACNR for the summer. For more information on STEP UP in American Samoa, contact Dr. Mark Schmaedick of ASCC-ACNR at 699-1575.