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Native Samoan graduate student studies genetic disease in her homelands

Justina research photo
Photo by Justina Tavana

Family relationships are the fabric of the Polynesian culture. Grandparents help take care of the young, and in turn, children and grandchildren take care of the elderly. Having grown up in Samoa and Hawaii, graduate biology student Justina Tavana ('23) understands the value of looking out for aging community members, even as the ravaging effects of dementia steal away their close connections and identity.

Currently, there are no dementia screening tools available to Pacific Island populations in their own languages, making the diagnosis process very difficult. Tavana and her research team are working to change this. Part of Tavana's research involves translating dementia screening tools into Samoan and Tongan. When complete, her tools will be the first optimized for Pacific Islanders. 

Stressing the importance of Samoan and Tongan populations having diagnostic tools in their own languages, Tavana says:
“Accurate diagnoses will allow for proper care and treatment.” She adds that if a mental processing disorder is diagnosed early, it could delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's.

When the screening tools are complete, Tavana and her colleagues will be able to assess Samoans and Tongans for symptoms of dementia and subsequently test DNA samples to identify the genetic strains hat influence dementia and Alzheimer’s. She hopes the results of her completed research will assist in identifying Alzheimer’s risk factors that would not be present in other populations, so that dementia-impacted Pacific Islanders and their families can access the resources they need.

Tavana is in Hawaii now, working on her research, and is optimistic about the work she and her team are conducting. Earlier this year, her research won BYU Life Science’s first place spot for the annual 3MT (3 Minute Thesis) awards.

“As an Alzheimer's disease research community as a whole,” she said, “we are working very hard on finding a cure for this devastating disease, and we appreciate all of the encouragement and support.”

photo of Justina and colleagues
Photo by Justina Tavana