STEP-UP inspires high school students in Hawaii and the Pacific to choose research careers

The National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health, has invested more than $1.5 million in projects involving the University of Hawai`i’s John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) this year, including “STEP-UP”, which is successfully recruiting high school students into careers in biomedical research.

STEP-UP allows ten high school juniors and seniors to spend two summer months at Hawai`i’s medical school conducting research and being mentored by university scientists. Their expenses are paid, including a trip to Washington, D.C. at the end of the summer to present their research findings.

Shorthand for Short Term Education Program for Underrepresented Persons, STEP-UP is an investment in the future, explains Dr. George Hui, its Hawai`i/Pacific Program Director and a faculty researcher with JABSOM’s Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology.

“We are trying to ignite a spark in the lives of young people who are uniquely qualified to serve populations which suffer disproportionately from disease,” said Hui, “because these young people are from those very communities.”

Hui has seen first-hand how the STEP-UP investment pays off. Last summer’s STEP-UP participants at JABSOM included three public school students of Native Hawaiian ancestry from Hana, Maui and Moloka`i, along with seven other teenagers selected from American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Over the last 10 years, several of the participants have gone on to college and graduate school, including being accepted into the school of medicine.

A student scientist at work in the Step-Up Program

In mid-January, Dr. Griffin Rodgers, the Director of the NIDDK, visited JABSOM for meetings and a public presentation. He was joined by NIDDK’s Director of Minority Health Research Coordination, Dr. Lawrence Agodoa, the man who runs STEP-UP programs like our’s around the county.

More than in many places in the United States, people in Hawai`i have a personal stake in the work of the NIDDK. Diabetes, digestive and kidney disease are leading killers of our island residents.

Here are some facts about kidney disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome in Hawai`i:

  • The National Kidney Foundation of Hawai`i says more than 2,000 Hawai`i residents suffer from kidney failure.
  • Roughly 8 percent, or 110,000 people in Hawai`i have diabetes, according to the Hawai`i State Department of Health’s Hawai`i Diabetes Plan 2010.
  • In research published in 2005 by University of Hawai`i scientists, a projected 33.4% of Hawai`i’s population has metabolic syndrome, which is significantly higher than the overall U.S. estimate of 21.8% of population with the disorder. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of disorders, such as high blood pressure and obesity, which together increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Story by: Tina Shelton, with photos from the STEP-UP Program. Our main photograph shows participants, including from Hawai`i, in the 2011 STEP-UP conference in Washington, D.C.

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