A look at how often overlooked local institutions are contributing to STEM advancements.
Year 2025: No one knows for sure what caused the virus. Or how it spread so quickly. It seems to have arisen from major metropolitan centers, those densely populated cities where a waning trust in science and technology left residents vulnerable. The infected idle mindlessly until provoked, then, like zombies, they gnash, snarl, lunge, and claw until their attention is drawn elsewhere. The disease continues to spread.
Year 2015. It’s nearing midnight and all is relatively quiet at Kapi‘olani Community College (KCC). There’s a low hum coming from the fluorescent lighting in a laboratory where undergraduate Robin Ka‘ai is waiting for DNA to be processed. It’s part of a project he’s been working on for nearly a year, one that attempts to create a more economical way to build antibodies by using genetically modified viruses.
“What took me a year to work on is literally a clear drip of water in a tube,” Ka‘ai says. “You don’t know what’s in there until you stick it in this machine, and you see the DNA is present. If it is, you get to see a nice band on the computer, and you might have been successful.”
In addition to attacking viruses that make you sick, antibodies are used as a diagnostic tool for a multitude of things, including HIV and pregnancy tests; they’ve also recently been used to treat certain types of cancers, though the high cost of these types of treatments (some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) results in many insurance companies refusing to cover them.
“One person gets sick, but you can crash an entire family if you’re talking about paying $100,000 a year for these antibody treatments,” Ka‘ai says. “You’re killing the livelihood of an entire family because it’s so expensive to produce antibodies. So this was our way of asking, what if we could convince the E. coli bacteria that you normally find in cat poop to make [these antibodies]? … You would bring down the skill sets required to people who work in an entry-level microlab instead of a specialized facility.”
Complex projects like these are common in KCC’S STEM program. Established in 2005 with a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, the program’s purpose is to enhance the quality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (hence, STEM) instruction. Another project Ka‘ai worked on following his antibody project, for example, involved using micro-algae that he genetically modified using an ultrasound and micro-bubbles to create a high-output, low-maintenance method to produce protein-based drugs for industrial use. The resulting data was sent to University of Calgary for further research on insulin production. Ka‘ai acknowledges that the research he and other students have done can be hard to understand, but that that shouldn’t deter people from trying to wrap their brains around it.
“Just because something involves a lot of complex ideas … that doesn’t mean you should just disregard it because it sounds scary or you think it’s not natural,” he says.
Ka‘ai wasn’t always a scientist. He grew up on O‘ahu’s west side, graduating from Wai‘anae High School in 2003. A month after, he enlisted in the Army as a healthcare specialist, a “fancier way of saying combat medic,” he says. In 2007, he deployed to Iraq, then Kuwait, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the level of care he was able to provide to the soldiers in his unit.
“It would be one of me with 40 other people on a convoy, and it was this impartial lottery anytime there was a mass casualty,” he says. “Two of you will get really good care, and the others will get whatever else I can give you. … I got interested in healthcare because I wanted to help people, but it just turned into me buying you time before you could go to someone who could actually help you.”
After he was discharged in 2009, Ka‘ai decided he needed to ramp up his skill set in order to exceed what he saw as the limitations of being an EMT. He decided to go into nursing and was accepted into programs at KCC and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Meanwhile, he had enrolled in a microbiology class at KCC taught by Professor Matthew Tuthill, who pushed Ka‘ai to look beyond what he thought were his limitations.
“That was by far the most influential thing I had happen to me at KCC,” Ka‘ai says. “That someone told me … to have the confidence to get to where [I know I] can go, not just where [I think I] have to stop.”
Ka‘ai soon came to the realization that instead of building his own skill set, he could help advance everyone else’s as well; he could, in fact, advance an entire field.
Ka‘ai withdrew his candidacies from both nursing schools, choosing instead to dive into STEM’s biotechnology and molecular science pathway, where he learned cutting-edge research and gained recognition after winning awards at competitions around the country, including top honors at the John A. Burns School of Medicine’s annual Biomedical Sciences and Health Disparities Symposium for his presentation on the use of phage display to produce antibodies against Campylobacter jejuni. It was the first time a community college student had ever won the award.
“I hate that biotech at KCC flies under the radar when it should be exalted as this bastion of research in the Pacific,” he says. “I’ve been up to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, and the level of research they do there is comparable with some of the stuff that we do right here.”
The question of how far to take science is one that Ka‘ai has seen played out in the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, black tobacco farmer whose cancer cells were, without her knowledge, biopsied by researchers at John Hopkins University shortly before her death in 1915. Researchers later discovered the aggressive cancer cells were immortal, meaning that they could thrive eternally in a lab. Today, Lacks lives on through these HeLa cells, as they are called. They remain the most widely used cell line in research, cited in more than 74,000 scientific studies, and have provided insight leading to breakthroughs in vaccines (polio, for one), cancer and AIDs research, in vitro fertilization, and genetics. Despite the multi-billion dollar industry that sprang up as a result of HeLa cells, Lacks’ descendants can’t afford healthcare, a conundrum leaving Ka‘ai to wonder: How far do you push science for the betterment of everyone else, when it means allowing those like the Lacks family to fall by the wayside?
Tuthill says it’s an ethical question that science can’t answer.
“We create the tools to allow technology to move forward. We’re not always equipped to handle the philosophical side, and that’s where other stakeholders have to come to the table and figure out what’s best for society.”
A lot of times, Tuthill says, dialogue about science, especially regarding things like genetic modification can get extremely heated.
“When it gets emotional, you can’t talk to someone rationally about it,” he says. “I try to get students to think more critically and evaluate the data they’re seeing and let them make their own decisions rather than someone else making the decision for them.”
Ka‘ai agrees: “We sit in our meetings and argue with each other all the time, but it’s that dialogue that’s important. It’s a more open-ended way of approaching these problems.” Instead, Ka‘ai continues, there’s an intense mistrust in science that’s going to drive a lot of our problems in the future. “If it’s that important to you, go out and get an education. Change policies, educate your community about what that impact is having on them. That’s how you defend Hawai‘i.”
Doing just that, Ka‘ai, who transferred to UH after receiving his associate’s of science degree from KCC in 2012, will graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree in molecular cell biology. He hopes to go on to get dual degrees as a doctor of medicine and doctor of philosophy (referred to as an MD-PhD) and become a research physician.
“I’m not the smartest person that came out of Wai‘anae, I know that for a fact,” he says. “But if I could get this far, someone better than me could make it much further.”