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Edna Kaneshiro:
Making Big Discoveries About Tiny Creatures

Date: May 31, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photo by: Dottie Stover
Archive: General News

Microbiologist Edna Kaneshiro would rather be daring than fashionable. She would rather be broad-based than narrowly focused. And she'd rather be in Cincinnati than almost any place else in the world.

Edna Kaneshiro

The winner of the 2001 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research came to UC in 1972 and quickly made a surprising discovery that had nothing to do with biology. She flew into Cincinnati for her job interview at night. While driving into town, she looked up, saw lights and exclaimed, "There's hills!"

"I thought I was going to come to a flat, flat place like Nebraska with cornfields and all of that. The next day, I could see the hills. It was love at first sight. There are few places that I would move to from Cincinnati. I think the quality of life here is terrific!"

That's high praise, considering that Kaneshiro is a native of scenic Hawaii. She first studied science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, but she was hooked on science well before that. "Ever since I was a kid, I was interested in nature," said Kaneshiro "…looking under rocks in tidal pools and finding out what was there."

Living on a volcanic island chain, Kaneshiro was fascinated by the diverse biology of the islands as well as their geologic history and power. Her career goals were set by the eighth grade. She was determined to be a science teacher.

"I didn't want to become narrow," she said, explaining her response to Professor Donald Kennedy, one of her early mentors, when he suggested she pursue a PhD. "I wanted to be broad-based.

Kaneshiro completed her undergraduate degree in science education at Syracuse and began teaching high school, but her close connections to Syracuse kept pulling her back to campus. "After those two years, I realized I liked being in an academic environment. Teaching high school has its challenges, but I found greater rewards being around people smarter than myself. It's that research atmosphere."

She was immersed in the research environment from the start at Syracuse. Needing money to help finance her education, Kaneshiro found a job as a research assistant in the lab of Professor Willis Boss. The former scientific attaché to the U.S. embassy in Japan was studying the effects of radiation on the renal system of rats, which gave Kaneshiro extensive experience in tissue sampling, biological analyses, and even basic surgical techniques.

"That was a good thing for me, because that job was really the basis for everything else that happened," said Kaneshiro. "If I had a job in the chemistry department, it wouldn't have turned out the same way."

Her knowledge of lab rats has helped her through the years as she developed a method for studying Pneumocystis carinii, an unusual microbe that causes pneumonia in AIDS patients and others with weakened immune systems. It's impossible to grow Pneumocystis in culture, but Kaneshiro's lab is one of the few that can both grow the microbe and study its metabolism in fine detail using organisms isolated from infected rats.

"Her works on this pathogen are especially meritorious," wrote Professor Eduardo Dei-Cas of the Institute Pasteur of Lille in a letter of support for the Rieveschl award. Professor Yoshikazu Nakamura of the University of Tokyo agreed, "This was very exceptional and not an easy task at all."

Kaneshiro made the jump from zoology to protozoology with the guidance of her two PhD mentors - Professors George Holz, Jr. and Philip Dunham. She had hoped to study an organism related to jellyfish or starfish, but they suggested she concentrate on Protozoa since she would be able to get more help from her others in the lab. It was a decision she never regretted.

"We would work together in the summer at the Marine Biological Lab at Woods Hole (Massachusetts), and you could always tell when someone was hooked. They'd start talking about 'my bug.' That's how I felt. It was my bug."

Kaneshiro's bug changed over the years. She's studied Paramecium, Giardia, and Leishmania, in addition to Pneumocystis. In each study, she keeps an open mind waiting to see what the organism has to reveal. That means sometimes avoiding classic, hypothesis-driven science in favor of open-ended exploration and keen observations.

"I don't agree with people who think there is only one way to do science or one scientific method, because that's just not true," said Kaneshiro.

Her work with Pneumocystis and Paramecium both uncovered unexpected metabolic pathways, different routes to build the various molecules they need to live. With Paramecium, that counts as a basic scientific discovery. With Pneumocystis, it's important information for those designing drugs to fight the deadly pneumonia.

Kaneshiro says neither discovery would have happened if she took a more conservative approach to her science. "It's not a shock, but it's interesting because it's not standard. There are other metabolic pathways, and maybe these are more common than people realize. But many people will say there's something wrong with what you're doing. 'Your experiment failed!'"

The frustration with the conservative side of science forces Kaneshiro to recall what she learned as a student. "I learned a great wisdom from a professor in my graduate years. There is no such thing as an experiment not working. There's always an explanation."

In her years at UC, Kaneshiro has mentored dozens of undergraduates and graduate students and invited many post-doctoral fellows and visiting faculty into her lab. She passes along that same advice, and she supports them throughout their careers.

"She is the first to promote others - the first to quietly help a younger colleague's career, the first to help advance a colleague who has done excellent research with little recognition, and the first to praise others' research," wrote JoAnn Burkholder, Director of the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology at North Carolina State University.

"She is a person of courage who has spoken in defense of colleagues who have contributed outstanding research that was, for one reason or another, politically or economically unpalatable."

Kaneshiro is proud of her mentoring skills. She said most students in her lab publish a higher than normal number of papers. Even some of her undergraduate researchers have co-authored scientific papers. Many of those worked with her under a federally funded minority apprenticeship program she organized for many years. Kaneshiro even lobbied to make sure that Appalachians qualified as an under-represented minority.

Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a microbiologist herself concluded that "Dr. Kaneshiro has created an impressive legacy as a scientist who has contributed to the vitality of her field by fostering opportunities to involve young people in the sciences. She has nurtured students at all levels, and she has reached beyond the academy into the local community to enable minority high school students to apprentice as science researchers."

Colwell's letter was one of many supporting letters from around the world. The signatures read like a scientific "Who's Who." They included Colwell as head of NSF, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Science, senior scientists at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts and several more.

On campus, Kaneshiro is also appreciated both within the department of biological sciences and by scientists in disciplines as diverse as paleontology and physics.

"Edna is held in extremely high esteem by her scientific colleagues and peers -- her reputation soars nationally and internationally," wrote Guy Cameron, department head in biological sciences. With research funding over $5 million and over 200 published abstracts and papers, Cameron called Kaneshiro "our most productive scientist."

Geologist David Meyer noted, "Her unique ability to direct her research group, achieve publishable results, obtain external grants, and teach courses is something I have always held in awe! She sets a very high standard for her students that is indeed a model for all of us."

Punit Boolchand, in the department of electrical and computer engineering and computer science, said "I have visited her office and laboratory and have seen first hand the level of ongoing activity. One gets the true perspective of a scholar. These activities, on the whole, personify the true spirit of a university as a center of higher learning."

For her part, Kaneshiro would like to see more science and less glitz in the research world. "It has to do with this age: Make it plain. Make it simple. Entertain me!"

But most important, she wants the scientific community to endorse her belief in daring research. "When you're onto something potentially important, why not say 'Fly with it. See if there's something there.' That's how science should be done."

Find out about other award winners.

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