JABSOM Love Story: From CMB students to Drs. Shontell

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Studying in the Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) Program at the University of Hawaiʻi and exploring the building blocks of life, they never expected that in just a few years, they would both graduate from JABSOM with their PhDs, becoming Drs. Shontell.

That’s doctors, plural: husband and wife.

Ryan Shontell walked into the Biomedical Sciences Building (BSB) at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) in 2018, eager to begin his graduate studies. But when he walked into his CMB622 class, he didn’t expect to meet and fall head over heels with the woman who would become his future wife.

Ruth (Taketa) Shontell was a second-year master’s student who had been studying at JABSOM in the lab of the now-retired Dr. Robert Nichols, since her days as an undergraduate student, part of the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). Ryan got up the nerve to ask her to study with him and teach him about action potentials.

“Come to find out that many years later, after we were dating– that he actually knew it! So I had spent all that time helping him study when he already knew the material,” said Ruth.

“Pretty good excuse, yeah?” Ryan chuckled.

The Shontells took an engagement photo in the lab

Ryan admits he was first attracted to the 65th Cherry Blossom Festival Princess’s beauty but was reeled in by her intellect.

“When we were in class, she would talk about her research and hypotheses or tests that she would do for different problems– I was like ‘Wow. She's pretty smart too. I gotta ask this girl to study,’” Ryan said. 

Even after only a few dates in, Ruth said they both knew that they wanted to create a future together. It was just a matter of when. And Ryan knew exactly where he wanted to propose: In the JABSOM Māla Lā'au Lapa'au right outside of the BSB where they first met and spent a lot of time in the lab, at odd hours and on weekends.

“Just as we got to the ulu tree I dropped a box and went ‘oh no,’ then knelt down and pulled the ring out and that’s how it happened,” said Ryan.

Proposal in the mala

It was a sprint of three months between the proposal and wedding bells as everything seemed to naturally fall into place.

“Our families were in different countries and states (at the time) but they would all be in Hawaiʻi on that date so we just decided to do it then so that all our families would be able to be there,” Ruth said.

They tied the knot in December 2022 before defending their PhD dissertations in 2023.

“It’s nice being able to troubleshoot issues in the lab together. We can kind of bounce ideas off of each other so I think that’s a really cool aspect of our relationship. And I want to continue doing research mixed in with my clinical work in the future,” said Ryan. “Maybe a joint cancer-research lab in the future, Shontell Lab?” he said as he looked over at his wife.

Ruth says it’s been a wonderful adventure to be able to support each other as they continue to pursue their respective passions.

“I think that earning our PhDs at the same time really strengthened our relationship because we were able to understand our commitments, time and organization of time. Even as he is working towards his MD, it’s quite nice. We’re used to communicating our schedules and what free time we do have to spend with each other,” Ruth said.

Currently, Ryan is a first-year medical student at JABSOM and is originally from the small town of Kohala on Hawaiʻi Island.

“I never would have thought that I would have been here, coming from that tiny little town, to getting my PhD and now, MD,” said Ryan. “My hope as a medical student is to reach out into our rural communities and to try to get more Native Hawaiian kids interested in medicine. It’s not something I had a lot of exposure to growing up.”

He hopes to provide underserved children in rural communities with more exposure to medicine and healthcare careers so that they are aware of the opportunities available and careers that are out there. Looking ahead, he hopes to do a synthesis of research with clinical work in oncology. “Within the Native Hawaiian population, we have very high mortality rates for various cancers and that’s something that I want to study in the future and help close some gaps,” Ryan said.

As far as their accomplishments go and as wide as their aspirations soar, the couple remain grounded and down to earth while being each other’s personal cheerleaders.

“I think Ryan is very humble and sometimes he forgets how smart he is and how much work he’s put into his studies. He’s just very humble but I love that about him,” Ruth said.

Ryan turned to his wife and said: “You got a PhD in neuroscience! Ruth’s got a ton of publications and they’re pretty high quality, high impact factor publications, too. I think that’s pretty amazing. There aren’t a lot of women in science and you’re a great one.”

The newlyweds blushed as they reflected on their serendipitous beginnings at the UH medical school. 

“If it wasn’t for JABSOM and the CMB Program, we wouldn’t have met,” Ryan said. 

“It was truly a once in a lifetime happenstance type of thing. If either of us took a different journey or a different path we wouldn’t have met so it was truly special that we ended up at the same place, at the same time and at the right time, I think,” said Ruth. “That’s why JABSOM is so special to us, the CMB Program is special and this whole campus is very special to us. We had so many memories here, studied a lot here, we got engaged here, we took our engagement photos here.”

Ryan added, “And we’re still here. We’ll be here for a little bit longer.”