Inspiring Islanders: Crossing an Ocean to Pursue Biotechnology

At the U.S. Amgen Scholars symposium at UCLA in July, an unexpected reunion occurred. When Janielle Cuala took the stage to explain her summer research at Caltech, Kristina Folta couldn’t believe her eyes: It was a friend of hers from Guam with whom she played rugby. “I was so excited to see someone else coming out of Guam and entering the STEM field,” Folta recalls.

Coming from a small island nation, neither was expecting to see someone else from a U.S. island territory, let alone someone they knew. The excitement then grew when Cuala ran into another fellow islander she knew previously, Rebekah Loving, who grew up in a small, old sugar cane plantation village on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.

The three Amgen Scholars felt bonded through their similar backgrounds. “As islanders, I think we share a different perspective of and history of community, family, and land,” Loving says. “Pacific Islanders love, cherish, and are proud of our heritage. We also share what it means to be far from family and friends to achieve the aspirations we have in science.”

Indeed, all have traveled far to pursue scientific research, and all want to eventually return to their island communities to share their love of STEM and to help people through their research. “I want to get my Ph.D. in a biomedical area such as biochemistry,” Cuala says. “Eventually, after all my training and experience, I want to be able to go back to Guam to help expand STEM education there and give students the opportunities I was able to obtain.

“I’m glad more and more Guam STEM students can participate in opportunities outside of Guam through programs like Amgen Scholars,” Cuala says, “but I think there is still a big gap in STEM education and opportunities available on Guam.”

Says Folta: “I hope that there will be more scholars coming out of the U.S. territories, especially Saipan and Guam, because there is huge potential!”

Read more about these three inspiring islanders in their interviews here:

Janielle Cuala, Amgen Scholar 2018 Caltech  (with video)
Rebekah Loving, Amgen Scholar 2018 University of California, Berkeley (with video)
Kristina Folta, Amgen Scholar 2018 National Institutes of Health