Kenna Kulani Sarka

By Jen Elana Quick-Cleveland

Kenna Kulani Sarka is a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz, currently investigating mechanisms of splicing fidelity using C. elegans in the lab of Dr. Alan Zahler. Although originally Kenna wanted to pursue a career in medicine, after her volunteer work at local hospitals she recognized that medicine was not her path. “That much interaction was hard for me,” she explained, “I care a lot and I genuinely want to help humanity, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to protect my mental health.” Kenna’s interest in research began during her time as a Chemistry Scholar at the University of Washington, and from there, she jumped straight into the RNA world as a Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) scholar studying miRNA biogenesis in the lab of Dr. Gabriele Varani at the University of Washington.

Kenna’s education has followed a non-traditional path. Kenna was homeschooled until she began college at the University of Washington. During her first quarter at the college Kenna joined the Chemistry Scholar Program, which is funded by the office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and aims to provide support to students through the introductory chemistry. Her transition and how her initial struggles at college challenged her: “I faced severe anxiety and consistently struggled with getting good grades—I didn’t think I deserved to apply to graduate school.” Kenna faced this challenge by building a strong mentor-mentee relationship with another PhD student Alicia Jones through the Chemistry Scholars Program. She said, “Alicia went above and beyond her duties at teaching chemistry and showed me her lab and encouraged me to participate in paid research positions over the summer.” Through this experience Kenna discovered her love for research and learned that finding the right mentors was a key for success. With this lesson in mind, she joined the Zahler lab as a PhD student in 2017. She was drawn to the Zahler lab, because she heard Al was a very supportive mentor. “Al is a great PI to work with,” she explained, “he gets me excited about science. We talk about the ups and downs of research, and when I’m discouraged, he spends time with me just going over the data and reminding me of things I have succeeded so far. Then, I remember that I genuinely enjoy my work—I enjoy the complexity of what I am studying.” 

“Studying these small molecular details has been good for teaching me to solve problems.”

Kenna’s thesis research is focused on the tri-snRNP 27K protein and a mutation previously shown to affect both cryptic and global splicing levels. Based on structures from Kiyoshi Nagais’ lab, she discovered that her mutation sat in a space that anchored the outside borders of the U6 ACAGAGA box. Using CRISPR in C. elegans,Kenna is systematically mutating snu66 and PRP8 at positions predicted to be near the tri-snRNP 27k splicing mutation and hopes that this approach will identify regions of the tri-snRNP that affect splicing fidelity. Kenna feels at home in the lab. “I love using my hands, and being on the bench,” she said. “I also love worms! They are hardy, you can even freeze them, which makes them an incredible genetic tool.” With the skillsets she has gained, she plans to pursue a career in biotechnology, and she thinks this is a good path for her to apply her science skills in a more direct way. “Studying these small molecular details has been good for teaching me to solve problems,” she said, “I have a new mental fortitude.”

Kenna’s favorite RNA at the moment is the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine and she plans to present her research at an upcoming RNA conference, hopefully in person. Kenna is not active on Twitter or social media, but you can reach her from her work email address ([email protected]).