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Jessica Natale in the lab and playing basketball.
Jessica Natale in the lab and playing basketball.

Science and basketball are two big passions University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa alumna Jessica Natale held on to growing up. As a child, she watched her mom battle Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a subsequent drug addiction. The time she spent in the hospital with her mom made her develop an appreciation for medicine. And her love for basketball, which she played through high school, got her through these tough times.

“My mom’s journey made me want to get into medicine because I was seeing first hand how much love and help people truly need,” said Natale.

I want to be someone’s person who can get them excited about their health or finding opportunities when there is little hope.
—Jessica Natale,
BS biology ’21

She earned her degree in biology in spring 2021, but continues to work on her previous research on pediatric cancer diagnosis she conducted as an undergraduate student. Natale was selected as a St. Baldrick’s Summer Fellow in 2020 doing work at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). She has been a research assistant under JABSOM’s Melissa Agsalda-Garcia since 2019, helping to develop a less invasive and more precise way to diagnose cancer using a spectrometer that irradiates the tumor, lesion or cell with a 785 nanometer laser.

Natale also joined the UH Cancer Center this year, working as a clinical research specialist where she processes clinical specimens from patients participating in clinical trials, handles data management, and conducts on-site visits with patients.

“Initially, I was terrified of medicine because of the sights, sounds and smells of being in the hospital, but the more I went and the more I was learning, I started to love medicine,” she said. “It was interesting that the body could respond and react the way it did, but also how people can be so intelligent to diagnose a problem and deliver solutions.”

Natale recently applied to medical schools and hopes to be admitted next fall. As she waits for a response, her love for basketball persists through her community work with the Institute for Human Services (IHS). Earlier this year, she set up the first-ever youth basketball league at a homeless shelter on Oʻahu.

Basketball project comes to life

“During COVID, I came up with ideas of how I wanted to spend my gap year before applying to medical school and I thought of creating a basketball league,” she said. “When I reached out to IHS, they directed me to Kahauiki Village.”

natale surrounded by kids
Natale serves as a mentor and coach for keiki in the league.

Kahauiki Village is home to 300 families who were previously homeless or are on the brink of homelessness. The IHS-run housing project of small plantation-style homes is located at Keʻehi Lagoon, with families coming from neighbor islands, Oʻahu and the Marshall Islands. About 70 kids, ages 4–17, signed up for the league during the first season. Natale anticipated less than 30 would sign up.

“These kids are some of the brightest, most genuine kids you will meet,” Natale shared. “Unfortunately, most of the attention is on the parents who are trying to get their GED, learn English as a second language, or are working throughout the day and the night to make ends meet. That’s why most of the kids are left alone and are free to do whatever they please.”

Natale visits the village almost daily, coaching basketball, bringing food and snacks to the kids, cleaning their ears, or simply just spending quality time with them. As someone who has played sports growing up, she said basketball can teach them a lot of things they can’t learn in the classroom.

kids playing basketball
Natale watches as one of the kids makes a jump shot.

“They get exercise, they get to run and have fun and learn what most textbooks don’t teach—communication, time management, teamwork and confidence,” she said. “Sports can benefit them later down the line, maybe in college with a scholarship or even professionally if that’s what they truly want. It just opens doors that other extracurriculars can’t. It’s a low-maintenance sport that requires minimal equipment, you can play indoors or outdoors, and it doesn’t take up too much time.”

She hopes the project can be an inspiration for others to come up with similar ideas to help the community, and create a push for more youth programs. In both medicine and basketball, Natale said she is fueled by giving people hope and motivation to do better, to feel better, and to be better.

“I want to be someone’s person who can get them excited about their health or finding opportunities when there is little hope. Through my personal experiences, I developed the heart and the desire to meet people and connect with them.”

—by Arlene Abiang

group photo of natale with kids
Keiki from Kahauiki Village’s basketball league.
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