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JABSOM researcher is among fifteen in the country to win prestigious award for minority scientists

Date: July 31st, 2019 in Grad PhD Students, JABSOM News, Research, UH Manoa    Print or PDF

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Pictured: Dr. Andrew Knutson in the lab at the Biomedical Sciences Building. Deborah Manog Dimaya photo.

By Kalpana J. Kallianpur, JABSOM Associate Professor

Andrew Kekūpaʻa Knutson, a post-doctoral fellow in the Center for Cardiovascular Research (CCR) at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, has been recognized with the prestigious 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program (PDEP) award. As of September 1, the PDEP program will provide a total of $60,000 over a three-year period to Knutson and each of the other fifteen award recipients throughout the nation.

The PDEP award is designed to enhance the research productivity of under-represented minority postdoctoral fellows, and supports career guidance and enrichment activities such as workshops, courses, travel, and training. PDEP fellows commit 75% of their time to their biomedical research projects and participate in a peer network system. According to the list of 2012-2019 grant recipients on the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s webpage, Knutson holds the distinction of being the only BWF awardee from Hawaiʻi in recent years. He is in good company. As a mid-career faculty member, Dean Jerris Hedges attained a BWF sabbatical grant that provided him the opportunity and support to do an international exchange with colleagues in the United Kingdom.

Knutson is a graduate of Kamehameha High School (Class of 2005), where he found that he liked science and research. “I enjoy the discovery aspect and the element of storytelling found in science,” he said.

In 2009 Knutson earned a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame, and in 2016, obtained a Ph.D. in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California–Santa Cruz. He then accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute in Boston, but decided after a year to come home for family and personal reasons. “For me, my quality of life in Hawaiʻi outweighed any professional gain I would obtain in Boston,” he explained. “Upon returning home I was lucky enough to join Dr. Ralph Shohet’s lab.”

Supervised by his mentor, Dr. Shohet, Knutson will undertake a project titled “Regulation of the hypoxic response by chromatin factors in the mouse heart”. His work focuses on understanding how cardiomyocytes (the beating cells of the heart) respond to hypoxia, or low oxygen levels. In particular, Knutson is studying a transcription factor called HIF-1, an ancient protein that turns on a number of stress-response genes under hypoxic conditions. He also hopes to determine how HIF-1 activity is regulated by another protein, the chromatin factor RACK7. To investigate this molecular circuitry, Knutson will utilize mouse genetics and next-generation sequencing technologies in his experiments.

Knutson is enthusiastic about his work environment: “The investigators here are truly passionate about their science and are very collaborative. I get a lot of advice and feedback on my science and career from other investigators throughout JABSOM, and especially in the CCR.” He noted that such support is crucial in Hawaiʻi because of the state’s geographical isolation.

Knutson’s long-term professional goal is to run his own research lab and study chromatin regulation in the contexts of development and disease. He also enjoys working on the mammalian heart, and may expand his research in that area. Most importantly, he said, he would like to remain in Hawaiʻi and train the next generation of scientists, especially students who are Native Hawaiian.

Analyzing research on computer

Andrew Knutson, PhD., mentors an undergraduate student. Deborah Manog Dimaya photo.

Knutson grew up in Moʻiliʻili in Honolulu. He has good memories of the Kaimuki-Kapahulu neighborhoods and of his favorite spot in the islands, Haena Beach on Kaua’i. Knutson’s interests apart from work are diverse. Discovering the allure of backpacking while in graduate school, he explored the backcountry in the California Sierras, which is the place he likes best outside Hawaiʻi . Recently he has been surfing as much as possible and has returned to dancing hula, which was a large part of his life during his childhood and teenage years. He enjoys baking bread (“there’s a lot of science in that, too!”).

On October 1-3, 2019, Knutson will attend the New Awardee Meeting in the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, where the Burroughs Wellcome Fund will convene its new awardees across all programs. He has also applied for a National Institutes of Health Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship Grant (F32) to study hypoxia in the mouse heart. F32 grants fall under the category of Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, which fund training for researchers in the health and behavioral sciences. The prestigious F32 fellowships provide up to three years of support for applicants who are judged to be committed to research careers worthy of funding.

The University of Hawaiʻi has had a few recent recipients of other similar Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, specifically F31 grants. These NIH F31 grant awards provide training support for graduate students from under-represented backgrounds as they pursue their doctoral degrees. The following individuals at UH have been supported by F31 NRSA training grants: Jon Yap, a part-Hawaiian doctoral student, who earned his degree in May 2019; Malina Ivey, of Native Alaskan heritage, who also graduated in 2019; and Jessica Swonger of Native American Indian ancestry.

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