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Utah's Pacific Islander Research Pilot Program Paves Way for More Diverse Future in Healthcare

Utah has one of the largest densities of Pacific Islander populations in the U.S. But despite a thriving community, the number of clinical and research practitioners in the state identifying as Pacific Islander lags far behind.

Three scientists from the University of Utah wanted to change that parity and the Haumana 'O Pasifika Research Program is already making waves nationally. Building off a summer pilot program, it offers paid research internship opportunities to Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian students. 

Co-led by the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology (NUIP) associate professor Will Holland, PhD, the program recently received a National Institutes of Health grant funding score of 11, one point away from a perfect submission. That suggests they’ll receive more than half a million dollars over five summers to support a total of 30 students as they research topics related to kidney failure.

Pacific Islander Summer Internship And Mentor Group
Students pose for a photo with Jake Fitsemanu (far left), Will Holland and Marcus Pezzolesi (far right) 

Pilot Program Paves the Way

A successful pilot program last summer set the groundwork for an ongoing internship program for Pacific Islander students. Holland partnered with Kalani Raphael, MD and Marcus Pezzolesi, PhD, MPH from the University’s Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, and Jake Fitisemanu from the Department of Ethnic Studies, to bring a yearlong discussion to life.

Raphael is one of only three board-certified physicians at the University that identifies as Pacific Islander and Pezzolesi researches genetic causes for diabetes and diabetic kidney disease in Pacific Islanders. Beyond his expertise in diabetes, Holland spent his early life in Maui. Mr. Fitisemanu is a national leader in the health disparities facing Pacific Islanders.  All four wanted to address the imbalance of Pacific Islander physicians and researchers.

“We needed to do something about it,” Holland said. “I think it’s a bridge to better healthcare for our Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, which are large and vibrant here but are sometimes less trustful of our hospitals and medicine.”

The three advertised the pilot program in mid-April and within a month, they had received 24 applications ranging from Connecticut to Australia. By the start of June, eight Pacific Islander students convened at the University to begin a 10-week program focused on their topics of interest: diabetes, kidney disease, nutrition, or heart disease.

Each student partnered with a mentor from the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, or  Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.  Drs. Holland, Pezzolesi and Raphael also served as mentors to Samoan, Tongan, and Hawaiian scholars who spent their summer researching diseases that disproportionately affect their communities and learning how they can better culturally advocate for health and wellbeing.

From Football to First-Generation College Graduate

A current Utahn of Samoan and Filipino descent, Jacob Taloa chose the University of Southern Virginia for college so he could play football. Despite earning a 4.0 GPA in biochemistry, Taloa planned to work at the airport after he graduated—until he heard about the summer program through his father.

He was one of the first applicants and his summer experience set him up to work as a research associate in the Summers/Holland Investigational Lab.

Taloa is the first member of his family to graduate from college and plans to attend medical school. In fact, six of the eight students in the program are first-generation college students. He’ll use his training to add much-needed diversity to the clinical setting.

“I’m super excited to give back to my community,” said Taloa. “For Polynesians, you never see a Polynesian doctor, so when they can see somebody that represents them, there’s studies that show that healthcare improves tremendously. I’m excited to give back to not only Polynesians but minorities in general.”

Pacific Islander Community Outreach
Taloa (L) during a diabetes screening community outreach event 

A Crucial Cultural Component

Taloa is one of five summer research program students that the mentor labs retained once the summer ended. Two of the other students are current collegiate athletes and a third is completing a work study position on campus. But the program went beyond lab training and focused on connecting the students with community and cultural leaders each week.

“The students named the cultural mentorship as the most important part of the program,” Holland said. “We wanted to give them a mentor they could identify with to achieve their professional goal. Without the mentorship, this program is a dime a dozen.”

Each Thursday, the students connected for lunch and seminars, where they could meet members of the Pacific Islander community on campus and in Salt Lake City. Many are leaders in the medical profession and served as role models for the next generation.

At the end of the program the students presented posters at the University’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. They started and ended the summer with ceremonies that honored their Pacific Islander culture: a kava ceremony in June and a lei ceremony in August, both featuring local community leaders.

Pacific Islander Research Poster Presentation
Student Lusia Tamala with her mentor, Mary Playdon, PhD, at the Undergraduate Research Symposium

Looking Forward and Leveraging Success

Year One of Haumana 'O Pasifika was without doubt a success. The team will build off that template for future summers, and they have two other NIH proposals in the works to expand the program. A pending NIH grant will hopefully fund post-baccalaureate students for up to two years as they prepare for PhD or MD/PhD programs and a planned NIH grant will support undergraduate researchers studying cardiovascular disease.

“We want even more diversity in our program,” Holland said. “We’d love to host trainees from Fiji or the Marshall Islands; the Pacific Islands are very diverse themselves. The more diversity we bring in, the more that we learn from our trainees, and that helps us be better mentors through our community.”

More funding will better support future scholars as they pursue their professional goals in Salt Lake City. For the initial year, NUIP, the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Center, the Molecular Medicine Program, and several faculty mentors provided stipends so students could live locally over the summer. But last-minute housing proved to be a challenge and Holland ended up hosting one of the students in his home.

Now that the nation is taking note, more promising students like Taloa will find the community and the challenge that awaits them at the University of Utah. The program will open doors to build a more diverse workforce in and beyond Utah.

“Where I’m from, the only two paths that Polynesians typically have open to them are either going big in professional sports or working at a warehouse or airport,” Taloa said. “This program has helped me realize my full potential.”


To learn more about the program visit