Native Hawaiian scientist is the first UH postdoctoral researcher to receive NIH K99 Postdoctoral Career Transition Award

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A postdoctoral fellow at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) is the first researcher at the University of Hawaiʻi to earn the prestigious K99/R00 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Andrew Kekūpaʻa Knutson has received the Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) Postdoctoral Career Transition Award to Promote Diversity– a special group of NIH Pathways to Independence, or K99/R00, awards.

The K99/R00 award will provide Knutson with up to five years of support to help him transition from the postdoctoral stage to the faculty stage of his career.

“I believe the training grants awarded to JABSOM over the past few years have demonstrated that we have been improving the pipeline of early career training grants supporting individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in the sciences, but this particular award is quite an impressive accomplishment,” said JABSOM Associate Director for Research Rachel Boulay, PhD.

The MOSAIC scholar cohort assembles young, underrepresented investigators from across the country who share a commitment to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. Knutson had applied for the program hoping to proudly represent his community as a Native Hawaiian, born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Knutson is “Grateful, honored and humbled to be a part of this amazing program, amongst these amazing scientists!”

Faculty who earn NIH K-level funding are among the most up and coming faculty nationwide in their disciplines, with the K99 being the most prestigious. This MOSAIC K99/R00 mechanism is particularly unique in that its scholars are placed into training programs led by scientific societies. In Knutson’s case, that is the American Society for Cell Biology, where he will connect with external mentors who will advise him as he transitions to independence, as well as provide him with career development activities and training.

His award-winning proposal, “Epigenetic Regulation of the Hypoxic Response in the Mouse Heart,” investigates how the beating cells of the heart respond to low oxygen. In the future he hopes to focus on understanding how genomes are interpreted to give rise to the diverse cell types that make up a multicellular organism and how those different cell types respond to stress.

Knutson is primarily mentored under Dr. Ralph Shohet in JABSOM’s Center for Cardiovascular Research. Knutson says that Dr. Shohet, along with his postdoc advisory committee, Drs. Michelle Tallquist and Ben Fogelgren, have been “instrumental” in helping him advance his science and training.

“At the end of the day, I want to do cool, exciting, and robust research,” said Knutson. “I would also like to see more people from underrepresented groups involved in science in Hawai’i. I, personally, have been extremely lucky to get this far and credit my mentors and support from my family.”

He acknowledges the incredible challenges and rigors involved in a career in academic, scientific research and notes that historically, ethnic minorities have been excluded from participation in many science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. While those ethnic disparities continue into the present day, he is hopeful that these types of awards/efforts are steps in the right direction.

“I think the culture around science is changing for the better and I hope to be a part of that cultural shift towards a more inclusive ‘realm of science,’” Knutson said.

He and his fellow MOSAIC scholars are listed on the National Institute of General Medical Sciences website.