BYU students Brooke Laoliokalani Spencer and Alan "Loki" Alohikea could never have expected their lives to change so quickly.
The native Hawaiians---Brooke is from Kauai, Loki is from Oahu---are both doing what so many BYU students do: working part-time jobs to pay their way through school. Loki hasn't seen his family for two years because he stayed in Utah this summer to work and save money for tuition.
But the trajectory of their college experience changed in one day this fall when their mentor, biology professor John Kauwe, summoned them to his office for some big news.
Brooke and Loki, despite all odds, had both received $70,000 grants from the National Institutes of Health. The grants cover tuition, books, health insurance, lab wages, travel to academic conferences---you name it---for both students through graduation. Suffice it to say, there were tears.
"Opportunities like this never happen to people like me---I was in complete shock," Brooke said. "Receiving this grant has inspired me to work hard and realize anyone can dream big. It doesn't matter where you come from or who you know."
But receiving the grants is neither the end nor the beginning of Brooke and Loki's stories. In fact, neither of them was even working with Dr. Kauwe until a few months ago. That's because Kauwe, a native Hawaiian himself, sought them out.
Earlier this year Kauwe learned that a recent NIH grant he received included a mechanism for established researchers like himself to seek supplemental funding for quality undergraduate students from under-represented ethnic or social groups. So Kauwe obtained a list of every life science major in that category and emailed them, inviting them to join his Alzheimer's research lab.
"My goal this year was to start an internship or get in a research group so as to gain real experience, and then, all of the sudden, I received an email from Dr. Kauwe's lab," Loki said. "It seemed like it was meant to be."
Loki, Brooke and two other students (who also happened to be Polynesian) responded to the invitation. Kauwe worked with each of the students to write grant applications to the NIH seeking the supplemental funding.
Shortly thereafter, NIH representatives contacted Dr. Kauwe with discouraging news. They told him they rarely fund these types of grant applications, and even if they do, they would only fund perhaps one student. Four is too much, they said. Kauwe told them he understood, but also told them to give it a chance and to take a closer look.
Amazingly, the NIH took his advice and awarded not one, but two grants worth $69,140.
"I was completely humbled and just grateful for that blessing---and I didn't know it would be that much money," Loki said. "It came when I needed it most, at a time when I am struggling financially to pay my way through college."
Kauwe said being in a position to bless his students has been his goal since joining the faculty at BYU in 2008. His extensive research efforts, which have produced more than 80 published academic papers, have allowed him to provide more opportunities for students like Brooke and Loki.
In fact, like many other faculty, Kauwe is a strong advocate for the university's undergraduate mentoring program, which gives quality students opportunities to conduct real research as undergrads.
"As we [faculty] become stronger in our fields and achieve more in our efforts, we open up more opportunities for students," he said. "I am grateful to have successfully developed a body of research experience and accomplishments that makes these kinds of opportunities available to my students. The supportive environment here at BYU has facilitated that success."