The Y Report

Speaking Their Language


Biology PhD student in a lab coat does DNA sampling
Photo by Brad Slade

In Samoan there’s no word for DNA.

But for biology PhD candidate Justina P. Tavana (’23), science is like a fourth language. Raised in Samoa and Utah, she speaks Samoan, English, and Tongan—and uses her fluency to bridge cultural divides. She’s currently working on a project to collect DNA samples and develop diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s in Pacific Islanders.

“Tina can connect with all these people in so many ways,” says BYU–Hawaii president and mentor John S. K. Kauwe (BS ’99, MS ’03). “She’s the perfect person to do this work.”

She once visited a woman in Hawaii who showed signs of dementia but was unwilling to visit a doctor. Tavana explained Alzheimer’s and DNA sampling in terms of what the woman understood best: family. Grasping the effect that early detection could have on her children and grandchildren, this woman, like many others, responded: “Research me. Do whatever you need to do.”

That’s Tavana’s goal: “bringing families together and trying to figure out how we can . . . work together and overcome this horrible disease.” 

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