Native Hawaiian Scientist Overcomes Obstacles, Wins NIH Award

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Dr. Jonathan Yap. Deborah Dimaya photo. 

When it comes to research tiers, a volunteer is akin to an entry-level position. In 2011, Jonathan Yap entered Dr. William Boisvert’s lab as a mere volunteer. Twelve years later, thanks to a coveted NIH grant, Yap will become a Principal Investigator, the highest level of the research tiers.

This achievement is rare for many researchers but even more impressive, considering Yap has never been able to do hands-on lab work. That’s because a spinal cord injury during a body surfing accident rendered him quadriplegic. For many, the setback could have put their life on a different path, but Yap persisted.

After more than a decade of diligent and novel work, he’s receiving a coveted K99 grant from the National Institutes of Health as he studies ways to make heart attack victims heal quicker.

Yap always had an interest in cardiovascular science, and his journey at the John A. Burns School of Medicine started after he got his Master’s in physiology. He found cardiovascular pathology to be one of the more exciting parts of the curriculum.

“I wanted to get my Ph.D., but I didn’t know if it was possible, so I wanted to see what it was like in a laboratory environment,” he said. “I looked at JABSOM and saw who was taking on new students. There was a list of ten people. I would apply in increments of three, and Bill was one of the first three.”

Dr. William Boisvert was the only one who invited Yap to check out his lab.

Dr. Jon Yap and his mentor, Dr. William Boisvert.

“His interest level was so high, and his desire to be involved in the world of research was so apparent. I wanted to have him join. His mind was a great asset,” Boisvert said.

A voracious reader of scientific work, Yap was accepted as a volunteer. He would sit in on meetings and learn about the cardiovascular research done in Boisvert’s lab. About three months in, Boisvert said that’s when he realized he had a gifted scientist on his hands.

“He was so up on the literature and was contributing novel ideas and different ways of doing things that it became very apparent that he could be a valuable, contributing member to the lab and to the world of research in general,” Boisvert said.

“I didn’t feel any hesitation from Bill to be included in the things that he was doing. That was an unusual sentiment. Up until that point, I was met with hesitation,” Yap said. “It was an empowering feeling, and it was the first time that I really felt that someone saw past what most people see first.”
Boisvert wanted Yap to play a more prominent role in his lab, but because Yap is paralyzed in his arms and legs, Boisvert had to get creative.

“It was going to be a challenge at all times. Frankly, that’s probably the major reason why other researchers did not look favorably upon Jon,” Boisvert admits. “It’s not something anyone wants to deal with, but I saw the potential, and I liked Jon enormously as a person. I really wanted things to work out for him, so we found ways.”

Those ways would consist of a technician in the lab–a pair of hands to do the work that Yap physically couldn’t do.

“I work with amazing people, and I design the experiments on paper, understanding the principles of what needs to be done in terms of science, designing the experiments, having discussions with Bill and the technicians on the best way to get these things done. Then the technicians go to work on it,” Yap explains. “They carry out the technical and mechanical aspects of the experimentation. I provide the conceptual guidance and experimental design.”

A quick learner, Boisvert encouraged Yap to become a Ph.D. student, and in 2013, Yap was accepted into the JABSOM’s Cell and Molecular Biology Department as a doctoral candidate.

After getting his Ph.D., Dr. Yap continued to work alongside Dr. Boisvert, investigating heart health. With heart disease being a leading cause of death in Hawaiʻi, it’s a topic that hits close to home for the Native Hawaiian doctor.

“I want to do work that serves the community. I want to help grow and better the entire community,” Yap said.

The key to success for a postdoc coming out of a lab is to have a niche that’s different from their Principal Investigator.

Dr. Boisvert is a vascular biologist and studies blood vessels. Heart attacks are triggered when the blood vessel gets clogged, and the blood can no longer flow. This means your heart can’t get enough oxygen.

Dr. Yap’s research hones in on what happens to the heart after a heart attack and how to speed up the recovery for those victims.

The longer the blood vessels are clogged during a heart attack, the longer tissues around the heart are not receiving oxygen. This is why the damage done to the heart varies for heart attack survivors.

When the damage is done, our bodies respond massively. It wants to deliver immune cells to the damaged area. One of the most important immune cells are called macrophages.
Yap is studying a specific protein within macrophages called Tristetraprolin or TTP. This protein was prolific in the immune response days after a heart attack. Yap is examining TTP’s role and its possible contribution to heart healing after a heart attack.

“We are looking to see if this protein has a role. We’ve seen it show up in our early data as being highly expressed after a heart attack. Although it is highly upregulated in the early stages and is anti-inflammatory, we’re wondering if it’s possible that it’s a regulatory mechanism after a heart attack. If we can leverage these anti-inflammatory properties, it might somehow, down the road, promote a better prognosis for a heart attack patient.”

Dr. Yap’s work was deemed to be highly important by the National Institutes of Health, and just this month, he was awarded the K99/R00 grant. The first two years of the grant will be in Boisvert’s lab, with him as a mentor and Dr. Yap as the postdoc. Dr. Yap will do two years of work and then become an independent investigator.

Boisvert notes that making the leap from volunteer to Principal Investigator in 12 years is remarkable.

“For able-bodied people, going from volunteer to PI is unusual,” Boisvert said. “Jon climbed the ladder as fast as anyone really could.”

Dr. Boisvert describes it as seeing his son going off to live a life of his own after getting married.

“I honestly think of the members of my lab as a second family,” Boisvert said. “I value the camaraderie that exists in the lab. To see people working together creating great science through motivation on their own is what I strive to do.”

Dr. Yap acknowledges his path to the K99 could not have been possible without Dr. Boisvert taking that chance on him in 2011 and bringing him in as a volunteer.

“Everything I learned about science, I learned from Bill. I trust him as much as I would anyone in my family. I’m not going to say he’s a father figure because he’s not that much older, but he’s like that cool older cousin who has your back. I always felt that way,” Yap said.

After more than a decade of benevolent guidance from Dr. Boisvert, Dr. Yap is looking to follow in his mentor’s footsteps and pass on the knowledge he received.

“Mentoring the next generation of scientists, especially in Hawaiʻi, in this climate, is absolutely my goal. It’s not just science, but life. I’ve learned life lessons from Bill, too,” Yap said. This is a diversity grant to promote diversity in faculty. Being a Native Hawaiian, I am vested in mentoring younger scientists and those interested in health.”