Written By Kristine Hojnicki

March 14, 2024
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  • HPU Master of Public Health student Kekoa Taparra, M.D., Ph.D., who is a Conquer Cancer Foundation grant recipient, presents

    HPU Master of Public Health student Kekoa Taparra, M.D., Ph.D., who is a Conquer Cancer Foundation grant recipient, presents. Image By Todd Buchanan

  • Dr. Taparra gives a talk on Native Hawaiian health at the 2023 President Obama USA Leaders Summit

    Dr. Taparra gives a talk on Native Hawaiian health at the 2023 President Obama USA Leaders Summit. Image By Alexa Gonzalez

Kekoa Taparra, M.D. Ph.D., a  Master of Public Health student at Hawaiʻi Pacific University (HPU), shares insights into his public health education, research at Stanford University, passion for helping his community, and future plans. Taparra’s unique journey reflects not only his commitment to academic excellence but also his deep-rooted passion for improving the health outcomes of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities.

In the vast landscape of public health, Kekoa Taparra, M.D. Ph.D., a Master of Public Health (MPH) student at Hawaiʻi Pacific University (HPU), emerges as an inspiring leader. Born and raised in Mililani, Oʻahu, Taparra's journey began as a student at Kamehameha Schools where he swam competitively. His abilities in the water earned him a scholarship to Fairfield University in Connecticut where he began his college career as a computer science major.

Eventually, however, Taparra pivoted into the natural sciences, double majoring in biology and psychology with concentrations in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience as well as cellular and molecular biology. And if he wasn’t busy enough, he minored in Asian studies, mathematics, and philosophy.

“While my parents are my greatest teachers, I didn’t grow up with a ‘ohana that had a strong presence in medicine or academia, so my education was really influenced by some great mentors,” he explained.

Following the guidance of these mentors, he pursued a Ph.D. in cancer biology at Johns Hopkins University, where he explored sugar metabolism in the context of lung cancer. But his pivotal moment into medicine and healthcare came at the end of the program when his Ph.D. advisor, a physician-scientist Dr. Tran, introduced him to clinical practice.

Kekoa Taparra and his family

Kekoa Taparra and his family. Image By Andy Stentz .

"I heard him say for the first time that a patient with cancer could go for cure," Taparra recalls. Taparra had had more than 10 family members diagnosed with cancer, most of whom succumbed to their disease. To him growing up, a cancer diagnosis for his ʻohana was terminal, not treatable. But witnessing the possibility of cancer survivors through this experience, motivated Taparra to attend medical school.

After completing his Ph.D., he continued his medical education at the Mayo Clinic, ultimately landing at Stanford University for his residency. Currently in his fourth year, Taparra is leveraging his medical education and research at Stanford, in combination with his public health training at HPU, to not only carry out his commitment to academic excellence but also his deep-rooted passion for improving the health outcomes for NHPI populations, including his community in Hawaiʻi.

Taparra's desire to address health disparities among NHPI communities is evident in his leadership of a lab focusing on NHPI health. His research, particularly on representation in clinical trials and cancer care outcomes for NHPI patients, aligns with his goal of combating Indigenous erasure and improving outcomes for Pacific Islanders.

"It's been a dry lab, focusing on thoughtful epidemiology studies using national databases with healthcare trainees and established collaborators across the country," he explained.

But as a molecular biologist, his research has primarily focused on clinical outcomes. Recognizing a gap in his training, Taparra decided to pursue the MPH degree through HPU.

"I never had much experience in epidemiology and public health and quickly realized how this limitation was holding me back from truly understanding the root of our community’s health issues, and importantly how to make change on a population scale," Taparra admitted.

Choosing HPU for his MPH was a strategic decision, considering the program's unique features. The online format allowed him to continue his NHPI research and residency at Stanford, and the executive track waived some fieldwork requirements, providing the flexibility he needed to focus on what was missing in his education.

Reflecting on his decision to join HPU's program, Taparra mentioned the unique aspects that drew him. "HPU allows students, especially non-traditional ones, to get an MPH online in a year. One of the only programs like this in the whole country and I’m pretty sure the only one in Hawaiʻi," he states. The program's awareness of Pacific Islander health also played a part in his decision to apply.

Despite the online format, Taparra emphasized the program's organizational strength. "HPU does it really well; things are nicely organized and the professors are very knowledgable. From the day I met our Associate Dean, Dr. Smitten, her guidance and care convinced me that this investment in my education was going to be well worth the experience," he commented, citing the accessibility and structure of the online curriculum.

The flexibility in electives has been an asset for Taparra's lab. "I took an elective on change leadership, which was insightful for how I wanted the group to engage with science and storytelling," he shared. He also said that the environmental health concepts he learned in the program influenced some of the content he included in his lab's recent publications.

The MPH's public health programming class also made a significant impact on his educational and professional experience. "Designing a program focusing on survivors of breast cancer and exercise was a real journey," Taparra noted. This newfound knowledge influences how he approaches research and discussions, especially within his family.

Taparra's commitment to improving health outcomes extends beyond academia. His lab's focus on storytelling, change leadership, and the one health approach demonstrates a holistic understanding of health. Particularly, his emphasis on trust-building within minoritized populations highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity in healthcare.

"I want to take care of patients with cancer and continue research to improve health disparities, especially for Pacific Islanders," he asserted. "Within minoritized populations, trust is one of the biggest things that has to be established."

While Taparra has been provided opportunities to receive numerous awards and accolades, including being part of the inaugural cohort for the President Obama Foundation and publishing in prestigious journals, he does his best to remain grounded. For him, the most meaningful aspect is not the awards but surviving the academic journey and being the first in his family to achieve advanced degrees.

"I'm the first person in my family to get a master's, a Ph.D., and an M.D.," he noted. However, he humbly acknowledged that achievements don't define him in the eyes of his family. “To them, I’m just Kekoa and I’m grateful for the humility they’ve reminded me to keep with me throughout this journey,” he said.

Looking ahead, Taparra envisions a career as a physician-scientist, bridging clinical care and research. His focus remains on serving patients with cancer and contributing to the improvement of Pacific Islander health outcomes. With a commitment to trust-building and a deep understanding of cultural nuances, Kekoa Taparra, M.D., Ph.D., stands poised to make a lasting impact in the realm of public health and medicine and he remains grateful for the opportunity that the faculty at HPU has provided him to help him achieve this goal.


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