Kehau Hagiwara: From IMET Intern to Postdoctoral Fellow

You are here

Kehau Hagiwara: From IMET Intern to Postdoctoral Fellow

Sep 26, 2018
Kehau Hagiwara holding a cell pellet of Rhodothermus marinus, a red-pigmented strain of thermophilic bacteria

Kehau Hagiwara earned a B.S. in Marine Sciences and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences, with a specialization in marine natural products chemistry, both at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. In this picture, she’s holding a cell pellet of Rhodothermus marinus, a red-pigmented strain of thermophilic bacteria, that will be processed at the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston for metabolomic analysis.
When Kehau was a rising senior in college, she worked in Dr. Russell Hill’s lab as part of the IMET Summer Internship Program. After earning her Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, she began a National Institute of Standards and Technology Postdoctoral Fellowship. While her fellowship was based in Charleston, South Carolina, she returned to IMET once a year to conduct research with Dr. Frank Robb. During her last visit to IMET, we had a chance to talk with her about how her internship influenced her career and what she’s studying now.

 What did you study during your internship at IMET? Sometime prior to my arrival, the oyster hatchery at Horn Point was having oyster larvae die-offs and they noticed it coincided with the appearance of bacterial colonies in their tanks. My project was to find evidence that these bacteria were able to produce a compound that could kill off these oyster larvae. The compound was called violacein and it’s this really purple-to-violet pigmented chemical that has shown toxicity to at least bacteria and some other multi-cellular organisms, but not to oyster larvae, which is why it was interesting for the project.
How did your internship at IMET help you as a scientist? I had two different motivations for coming here: figuring out how to get the most out of my future graduate experience and getting research experience in a really high quality environment. I spoke to a lot of the graduate students, postdocs, and lab managers here about their choices to pursue their degrees and how you go about choosing a good advisor for you. As far as my research career, I think it was probably one of the best things that I’ve done because it exposed me to a completely different research facility and environment.
What are you studying now? I’m working with Dr. Frank Robb on the NMR-based metabolomic analyses of hyperthermophilic archaea and bacteria for the bioprospecting of compounds related to cryopreservation. Essentially all of those big words mean that I’m looking at the different metabolisms of these microorganisms that grow at very high temperature and the small molecule chemistry associated with them. They survive and proliferate at somewhere near the temperature of boiling water. We want to see if and how the compounds these organisms use to survive can be applied to preserving the viability of cellular metabolism at the opposite end of the spectrum, at -80 degrees Celsius.
Why is it important to understand how cells survive at -80 degrees Celsius? Our main purpose is to apply this to zebrafish research. Zebrafish embryos are used for bioassays or monitoring embryonic development. They’re commonly used in many scientific studies. Right now, we have to store them at liquid nitrogen temperatures, which is -140 degrees Celsius. It’s very expensive to do that, so being able to store zebrafish embryos, sperm, and eggs at -80 degrees Celsius would enable studies to be conducted with lower costs.
Do you have any advice for young scientists and to IMET interns? Throughout my personal development I have asked myself three main questions:

  1. To address whether to apply/try for an opportunity: What do I stand to lose by putting myself out there? (spoiler alert: the answer is usually “nothing”, so don’t be afraid to throw your hat into the ring)
  2. To identify short-term goals: What can I learn, professionally and/or personally, from this?
  3. To determine the value of the time/effort required for an opportunity: How does this fit in with my longer-term (career or life) goals?

This thought process introduced me to IMET, got me involved in a variety of research projects, and after submitting a few proposals, also resulted in a fellowship award. It also doesn’t hurt to have a great team of support and mentors, like many in the IMET community, behind you.