By Kayla Valera | Staff Writer

The KCC STEM program, as of Oct. 15, can now claim five first-place winners of the SACNAS awards for the fourth year in a row.

The convention of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (or SACNAS) showcases STEM-related projects done by indigenous students, undergraduate or graduate, and professionals. This year marked the 24th annual conference, proving to be the biggest one with more than 3,800 people who attended. Of these multicultural attendees, Hawaiʻi’s  own SACNAS chapter, ʻIlima, made its mark on the SACNAS Native American Pow Wow.

Most Oʻahu colleges are already a part of the Hawaiʻi chapter, including UH Mānoa, KCC, Chaminade University, and UH West Oʻahu, though all on-island colleges can join. However, KCC’s STEM program is the only two-year colleges from Hawaiʻi that has been able to churn out as many award-winning researchers at the conference as it has consecutively for the past four years – a feat that even four-year Hawaiʻi universities haven’t been able to achieve.

 Kimberly Kahaleua wins first place at the 2015 SACNAS conference. (Photo Courtesy of STEM program)

Kimberly Kahaleua wins first place at the 2015 SACNAS conference. (Photo Courtesy of KCC STEM program)

Previous winners from KCC include Kaile Costa, who won first in the category of Zoology and Animal Science in 2013, and Melanie Keliʻipuleole, whose research on genetic connectivity to sea urchins earned her first place in the category of Genetics. Then in 2015, both Nalani Kito-Ho (Animal Behavior with her studies focusing on Hawaiian snails) and Kimberly Kahaleua (Biology through her analysis on the bacterial effects of nioī) won first in their respective categories.

This year, Sharysse Kanehailua made a first-place finish in her category of Traditional Knowledge at the 2016 conference with her research abstract based on the ʻilima and its medicinal uses as a laxative for children.

“(Project Olonā) actually assigns you a plant,” she said. “… I didn’t know what it was but I wanted to find out as much as I could because there’s not a whole lot that’s known about it in scientific research. So I like to think that the research that I’m doing is a breakthrough.”

Andrew Chang, from Project Olonā, also won in the category of Traditional Knowledge in second-place for his research on the medicinal plant ʻuhaloa.

After joining the Papa and Wākea research program at KCC, Kanehailua was given an idea on how scientific research can be founded based on Native Hawaiian beliefs. At the moment Kanehailua intends on getting her associate’s degree in Biology and Hawaiian Studies.

Kanehailua also shared how despite this being her first year exhibiting her research at a conference, she had already garnered exposure to these types of events beforehand at the Washington, D.C. SACNAS conference as well as the TCUP (Tribal Colleges and Universities Program).

She was able to enter as an exhibitor to the 2016 SACNAS conference through KCC’s Project Olonā, a program that concentrates on the study of native plants and their properties.

Keolani Noa, the coordinator of the Native Hawaiian STEM initiative, invests in budding scientists such as Kanehailua by pushing them into such enriching endeavors. As Kanehailua remarked on her history with the many summer programs and research projects that she’s worked for under STEM, she claims that “staying close to aunty is the way to go.”

Noa advises that STEM research hopefuls should “continue to build the skills, and take opportunities that allow them that environment of which they can learn new things and experience different ways of learning.”

Project Olonā is the arena in which Kanehailua and many other SACNAS winners from KCC STEM has attributed their success.

To learn more about the SACNAS organization, visit the website here. If you would like to know more about the STEM program or have any questions about Project Olonā, email Keolani Noa at

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