UH grad, future STEM leader, awarded national fellowship taking him to Nepal

After graduating this month from the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa with a double major in marine biology and chemistry, Caleb-Matthew Olaso will be heading to Nepal. With an impressive resume of research and academic experiences, he was recently awarded a Henry Luce Scholars fellowship, a nationally competitive fellowship program that will take him to Asia for a year where he plans to work in a non-profit centered around education development.

As an undergraduate student at UH Mānoa, Olaso has been mentored by and completed his honors thesis research in the lab of Matthew Medeiros, associate professor at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC) in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

“We are proud that our labs have contributed to the development of such an outstanding scientist,” said Medeiros.

With Medeiros, Olaso assessed the fatty acid makeup of mosquitoes, how this changes with the makeup of the insect’s microbiome, and how these factors influence mosquito development and survival. Their work could advance approaches to controlling mosquitos, which are able to transmit diseases, such dengue fever and malaria. 

“We are tackling our ecological research question with both microbiological and chemical techniques,” said Olaso. “I feel that many research projects would benefit from this sort of interdisciplinary approach. Branching out beyond the rigid, well-defined scientific fields to learn new techniques and apply my knowledge to answer new questions is one of the highlights during my time at the Medeiros lab.”

Olaso graduated from Hawai‘i Technology Academy and completed his associates degree in natural science at Leeward Community College prior to attending UH Mānoa.  

“Growing up in Hawaiʻi, I had a lot of opportunities to get attached to the ocean,” said Olaso. “I have a lot of fond memories of learning to dive and fish with my dad throughout my elementary and middle school years. When I reached Leeward CC, the marine biology degree stood out to me the most, so I pursued a natural science degree with the hopes of turning that into a four-year degree in marine biology. The chemistry professors I met there were probably the most influential professors I’ve met, outside of my research mentors. They were the first to make chemistry interesting to me and were the first to help me consider pursuing a career in scientific research.”

When Olaso arrived at UH Mānoa, he received research funding through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, a National Science Foundation-funded internship program at UH Mānoa run by Medeiros and PBRC assistant professor Kiana Frank, and worked with then-director of PBRC professor Margaret McFall-Ngai. Olaso and McFall-Ngai published the results of their research in a scientific journal, something quite uncommon for an undergraduate student. 

Around that time, Olaso was accepted into the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program at the UH Mānoa John A Burns School of Medicine, which provided him with additional research funding during his senior year. Having already developed a great relationship with Medeiros, Olaso was welcomed into the Medeiros Lab Hui.

“I think more than the work I’ve done, the people I’ve met at the PBRC have influenced my career goals,” said Olaso. “Margaret and Matt are great examples of what it means to orchestrate a lab to effectively make new scientific discoveries, all while fostering a healthy and harmonic lab environment. My mentors have inspired me to become a mentor and a leader, whether as a principal investigator or in another career entirely.” 

Unparalleled intellect, cultural perspective

“I’m interested in supporting other Native Hawaiian and underrepresented students in their pursuit of STEM fields,” said Olaso. “I want to encourage local students to be prepared to tackle the problems facing our islands. I want to tell them, ‘Don’t let circumstances define you!’”

After Olaso returns from a year in Nepal, he will be starting a doctoral degree at Stanford’s bioengineering program. 

“I have many research interests, so I can’t say with certainty what I will be studying there,” Olaso said. “The study of bioactive natural products is one field I hope to learn more about during my Ph.D. though.”

“Whatever Caleb chooses to focus on over his career, he will bring unparalleled intellect, superb instincts, and an underrepresented cultural perspective to the research enterprise,” said Medeiros.

Read more about Caleb on JABSOM’s Student Profile and Hawai‘i News Now