From Lab Coat to Malo, JABSOM Scientist Competes at Merrie Monarch

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As the Merrie Monarch Festival celebrates its 61st year, JABSOM scientist Andrew Kekūpaʻa Knutson, PhD, prepares to perform for the fourth time. 

Dr. Knutson is a member of Ka Lā ʻŌnohi Mai O Haʻehaʻe. Under the direction of Kumu Hula Tracie and Keawe Lopes, Knutson, and the hālau’s kāne line will be competing for the third year in a row. 

"As hula people, we say that 'hula is life,' and we really take that to heart," Knutson said. "It permeates and touches every part of our lives, whether it be our families, how we interact with our environment, or even at work."

Well before Dr. Knutson became a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Cardiovascular Research, his first love was hula. 

"I've been dancing since I was eight," Knutson said. "Hula has been a steadfast, constant in my life." 

Knutson first took the Merrie Monarch stage in 2002 with Kumu Hula Leimomi Ho and Kealiʻikaʻapunihonua Keʻena Aʻo Hula, when he was 14 years old. It would be 20 years before he would compete on that prestigious level again. "I stopped dancing when I left for the continent to go to college," Knutson said. 

When he returned, the passion for science which was discovered during his time at Kamehameha Schools, was solidified, but his love for hula never waned.

"Hula connects me to my history, my land, my culture, my kūpuna," Knutson said. "In science, I'm studying biology, which is the study of life. So, hula is another aspect of studying life. It gives you a different perspective."

Knutson is honored to be a part of Ka Lā ʻŌnohi Mai O Haʻehaʻe, and in 2022, the hālau’s men were invited to the Merrie Monarch Festival. 

"Our practices are a lot of work," Knutson admits. "After spending a lot of time on the continent, I didn't know if hula or the Merrie Monarch would be in my future, but things just happen the way they're supposed to happen."

Competing on hula’s biggest stage can draw out nerves, but Knutson enters the competition with unwavering confidence.

“Right before I get on stage, I get into a trance and at that point I’m kind of in a different zone. I don’t really remember being on stage. I trust my body, my knowledge of the dance, my kumu and my hula brothers and sisters.” 

While the rigors of hula can be mentally and physically taxing, Knutson says it's a good outlet for the stresses that come from working in a lab. 

"Hula re-energizes and reinvigorates me," Knutson said. There's a mental and a spiritual aspect that takes me out of the worries and stresses associated with doing biomedical research. I'm working with mice and genetic and genomic techniques. I can kind of get lost in the minutiae of things. Hula centers me and grounds me in understanding why I'm doing what I'm doing."

Knutson studies heart health, specifically chromatin factors and epigenetics in the cardiovascular system. At a time when the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health found Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are 10 percent more likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease than non-Hispanic whites, Knutson's work hits close to home. 

"One way I think I can have a positive benefit is in teaching and growing a body of researchers that have a perspective of wanting to study heart health in the context of helping native and indigenous groups," Knutson said.