Pia Untalan Olafson

University of Hawaii at Manoa

  • Cell and Molecular Biology (PhD) 2002
  • Zoology (BS) 1996

Molecular biologist studying blood-feeding arthropods. Mom. Texas transplant.”  If you’d shown me this byline 25 years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined it was describing my future self...and it all stems from an application I submitted to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Research Fellowship during my second year as an undergraduate at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. I completed two semesters of Intro to Biology with Dr. Chris Womersley during my first year. As director of the HHMI program, he spoke of these fellowships numerous times and invited several undergraduates in the program to give overviews of their student projects to those attending lecture. My only exposure to research at the time was from laboratory coursework, but I thought the program would be a great way to boost my application for medical school (!). I received an HHMI fellowship and participated in the program for two years under the terrific mentorship of Dr. David Haymer. In addition to research experience in the lab, the HHMI program provided a venue for presenting our research at symposia both locally and nationally. By the time I received my undergraduate degree, thoughts of medical school were fleeting. I’d caught the research bug and became completely immersed in pursuing research as a career. 


(L-R): Pia Olafson, David Haymer, and Janice Lai. PhD Commencement Ceremony

I was accepted into the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences at UH-Mānoa, and Dr. Haymer served as my Ph.D. mentor/advisor. As a result, I was able to continue working with the tephritid fruit fly species I was exposed to as an undergraduate. My graduate research involved investigating sex-determination mechanisms in the Mediterranean fruit fly using molecular approaches. As part of the graduate program, I completed research rotations in Drs. Rebecca Cann’s and John Hunt’s labs, learning new techniques in the process.  While in Dr. Haymer’s lab, I was given the opportunity to mentor numerous undergraduate interns, and these interactions refined and enhanced the lab techniques and skills I’d learned over the years. Graduate teaching assistantships from the UH-Mānoa Biology Department funded a substantial portion of my graduate school career, and more importantly these assistantships increased my understanding of the subject matter by requiring that I teach it to undergraduates in a course setting. I primarily interacted with students enrolled in the Cell and Molecular Biology and Genetics courses/labs led by Drs. Steve Robinow and Rebecca Cann, both of whom were fantastic role models for the art of teaching abstract concepts to undergraduates. I had the opportunity to present my research as part of the Biomedical Sciences and the Testers Symposia, and these venues provided interaction with other faculty members and student researchers. Dr. Haymer fostered a laboratory environment that was nurturing and cooperative, and our lab of several core graduate students became my second family. He cultivated a support system that was essential for the highs and lows of graduate school life. 


When the time came to transition from graduate school to the real world, the outside member of my dissertation committee suggested I consider post-doctoral research positions in the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which is the in-house research arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). I moved to Texas and lived with my brother and his family while looking for a job, and a few months later I started a post-doctoral position with a USDA-ARS laboratory, the Knipling-Bushland US Livestock Insects Research Lab. The research focus? Ticks and blood-feeding flies. This was intimidating, given that I’d had no previous experience working with blood-feeding arthropods. Regardless, I began an adventure with an entirely new organismal system armed not only with my toolbox of techniques and skills, but also with the mindset that ‘you never stop learning’. Several years later, a research scientist position became available at the same location. I was hired as a permanent member of the research staff, and I’ve been conducting research at the location for 13 years. 


What I enjoy most about research with USDA-ARS is the direct connection to current issues/concerns in US agriculture. My research program focuses on understanding the host-ectoparasite relationship, as it relates to blood-feeding flies that are of significance to livestock producers. This includes studying pathways that regulate chemosensation in both stable flies (Stomoxys calcitrans) and horn flies (Haematobia irritans) in an effort to design fly control technologies that will supplement existing approaches.  These fly species are commonly associated with septic environments, and I’m working with a group of scientists to understand the fly’s immune response to bacteria in these microbe-rich communities. Along those same lines, I’m also studying the role that these flies may have as mechanical vectors of bacterial pathogens in livestock production settings.


I am grateful to the UH-Mānoa HHMI Program, the CMB Graduate Program, the Biology Department and (most of all) to Dr. Haymer for providing the foundation that prepared me for a career in science. Undoubtedly, the hands-on research experience I received while at UH-Mānoa was vital to sparking my interest in this field. During both my undergraduate and graduate school tenure, I interacted with UH-Mānoa faculty who cared and were genuinely invested in student success. A unique experience that has made a lasting impression on me.   Advice to current students? In the words of Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!”.



The Olafson Family

Content Type: 
Alumni Blog
Last Modified: 
04/29/2016 at 7:24am