• By Johanna Salinas

Dr. Bwarenaba Kautu: The best of both worlds


Dr. Bwarenaba Kautu. Photo courtesy of Greenville University

The dark skies and heavy rain in Boston make for the perfect weather to cozy up indoors with Netflix and hot chocolate. However, Harvard scientist Dr. Bwarenaba Kautu, who has been holed up in his home, itches to return to his lab after weeks of being in quarantine. Kautu, a medical researcher, is not too worried about returning to work during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I’m not an expert on the pandemic. The best we can do is follow the guidelines by the state medical experts. They know more than we do,” Kautu said.

Quarantining alone in the big city is not too difficult for Kautu, who stays connected to his family in Kiribati. “A lot of people in the islands are far from the virus,” he said. “In Kiribati, there are still no recorded cases. People are still hanging out with each other. They’ve reduced parties and cultural festivals. They’re not doing that anymore.”

Growing up homeless in Kiribati, Kautu is no stranger to difficult times. “A lot of people may have fear, but we have to be positive and try to help each other in times of difficulties,” the scientist said. “I think the Pacific way is if there are people who are sick and need help, we all come together as a community to support. That’s something that helps psychologically, getting with an entire village community to support each other. It’s the way to go and it’s one of the reasons I’m proud of the way we live in the Pacific.”

Kautu believes that social distancing should not stop people from being kind. “Here in the U.S., it’s different. A lot of conflict is going on. A lot of things are politicized during the pandemic,” he said. “We shouldn’t be doing that.

We should do it the Pacific way where we help everyone and are being kind to everyone. It’s something unique about us in the Pacific. We don’t march or protest. We try to control things by supporting each other.”

While majoring in Kiribati culture in college, Kautu became aware of old island traditions such as farming. “There are a lot of plants in the Pacific and many scientists from Europe and the U.S. go to those islands to study the plants and local medicines,” he said. “They were able to find things—the chemicals and compounds of the plants—that are important for treating diseases. I really believe in local medicines. We need to build research in that area in the Pacific. A lot of local medicines are very powerful. In Samoan islands, they have mamala plants and scientists are extracting chemicals from these plants to treat HIV.”

Kautu, who is currently based at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, also holds a tenured professorship position at Greenville University, Illinois where he teaches biomedical classes and supervises undergraduate neuroscience research. Kautu received his Ph.D training in cell/molecular neuroscience in the lab of Guy and Kim Caldwell at The University of Alabama.

Despite his many years researching Western medicine, Kautu believes there is great value to traditional healing. “We shouldn’t be afraid to try to integrate or connect Western medicine with local medicine,” he said. “These things could be complementary. If we use some of our skills in the Western medicine world to study Pacific medicine, it can be a powerful thing for Pacific islanders.”

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Like many Micronesians in a diaspora, Kautu sometimes finds himself stuck between two worlds, but he sees this as an advantage. “I’m trained in both worlds. I have an understanding of local herbs and Western medicine. I’m trying to gather all these things and combine them together because that’s the way to go. I believe if we put all these things together, they’d be complementary,” he said. “There are problems in both worlds, but most of these problems are related to humans. For example, some people just want to make money off of medicine. They promote a drug or medicine because they want to get rich.”

Although he is committed to Western medicine, Kautu is aware that the system sometimes has its flaws. “Sometimes Western scientists go to the Pacific and say, ‘Hey guys we want to take tests of your DNA,’ and there are no consent forms. We have to be careful about that,” he said. “I feel very uncomfortable with that aspect of Western medicine. We need to be respectful of indigenous people. If we want to study indigenous people—if we want to study their bodies, we need to explain to them why we do it. It has to be informed consent. Why are we doing this and what are the consequences of doing this—we need to explain to indigenous people.”

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Kautu is grateful for the opportunities he has had to work at Harvard University, but he always remembers his humble beginnings. “I was having a very difficult time understanding things in the classroom in the American system. It was new to me,” he admitted. “I was really struggling communicating with people. I misunderstood instructions all the time. I ended up missing labs sometimes because of misunderstanding.”

Meeting with the diaspora in Hilo, Kautu believes that Micronesians in the U.S. are blessed with opportunities to create a better future. “I feel that the Micronesian community there, if they work really hard in Hawaii since they’re already there and they should already know the school system, I believe they can do really well and excel in the community and go achieve great things in their lives. For me, I started with American culture late in life,” Kautu said.

Having only encountered one other Pacific Islander (a Hawaiian) at Harvard, Kautu is hopeful that his Micronesian people can join him at Harvard.

Kautu reminds people to be careful with information online. “If there are no data available to support a claim, I’m going to try to advise against it. If someone says, ‘this plant cures Covid-19,’ but there’s no scientific evidence, then I have to be careful.

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