Jason Kenji Higa Named ARCS Scholar of the Year

Jason Kenji Higa, working on a doctorate degree in molecular biology, has received the Ellen M. Koenig Award in Medicine and was selected as “Scholar of the Year” from among 12 of the top PhD students from each of the Professional Schools and Programs at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Higa is a PhD student in Dr. Jun Pane’e’s Laboratory and in the Department of Cell & Molecular Biology at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). This is the second year in a row that a JABSOM PhD student has won Scholar of the Year. (S.J. Miyagi was selected in 2010.)

Achievement Rewards for College Students, known as ARCS, is a nonprofit, volunteer organization dedicated to helping meet the national need for scientists and engineers by providing awards to academically outstanding students who are U.S. citizens. The Honolulu Chapter recognizes outstanding students and scientists at the University of Hawai’i.

Higa said he couldn’t believe it when told he was receiving an ARCS award in medicine. “I’m getting an award in medicine?” he asked, explaining he is working for a doctorate degree in molecular biology, not a medical degree. “My undergraduate GPA wasn’t medical school quality,” he said with a laugh. He said he joined UH in the fall of 2008, first majoring in civil engineering. He then changed to math, then biology.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UH and a master’s in biology from the University of San Francisco.

Higa said one of his undergraduate professors encouraged him to go back into research when he had given up on medical school. Higa, who already has two published papers, is exploring potential therapeutic applications of an extract from a fast-growing bamboo species, Phyllostachys edulis, used for timber, furniture, construction and food. Along with other students, he found in tests that the extract inhibited tumor development in rats and in vitro with little toxic effect on normal tissue. The extract was shown to suppress inflammatory pathways, increase activity of an antioxidant pathway, inhibit production of inflammatory proteins and increase secretion of an anti-inflammatory hormone.

Higa told ARCS his findings “coincide with similar studies in other bamboo species and we hope that they will eventually lead to the refinement of this extract or its compounds toward the development of novel and affordable therapies.”

Higa was an Eagle Scout and a 1999 UH Regents Scholar. He received a 2008 Keystone Symposia Underrepresented Minority Scholarship. His interests, besides research, are computer programming, exercise and financial planning.

Story by Helen Altonn (For more information about the ARCS achievement awards, contact Susan Lampe, president of the Honolulu Chapter, at 373-3473.).



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