Studying heart disease in AANHPI community

Darcianne Watanabe

Ph.D. student Darcianne Watanabe wins NSF fellowship

By Mimi Ko Cruz

As a Native Hawaiian scholar, Darcianne K. Watanabe wants her research to benefit her community.

The Ph.D. student in social ecology has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to continue researching how specific psychosocial and physiological factors influence cardiovascular disease risk among Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. 

The fellowship provides Watanabe with three years of support through a stipend and tuition funding in the amount of $147,000. She was selected for demonstrating potential to significantly contribute to research that focuses on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations in the field of social ecology, specializing in psychology. 

“I am personally connected to my research through my Native Hawaiian cultural values,” Watanabe says. “Native Hawaiians believe that everyone is spiritually connected, and we practice this spiritual connection through laulima.”

As described in Kahuna Harry Uhane Jim in his book Wise Secrets of Aloha: Learn and Live the Sacred Art of Lomilomi, laulima translates to “many hands” working together toward a common goal like a loving family.

“The ‘many hands’ could be relatives, but it also extends to community members,” Watanabe explains. “My conceptualization of laulima further extends this cooperative circle to include academics and students. In other words, everyone is responsible for reducing cardiovascular disease risk in Native Hawaiian and other indigenous populations and strengthening these communities. That is, when ‘many hands’ work together toward reducing health disparities, we are more likely to accomplish this goal.”

Watanabe, who expects to complete her M.A. in social ecology this spring and her doctorate in 2026, has a B.A. in criminology, law and society (summa cum laude) from UCI and an associate’s degree from Kapiolani Community College in Hawaii, where she is from. 

She hopes to land a professorship upon graduation. “I hope to secure a position as a professor at a Research-I institution where I can continue this critical research,” Watanabe says. “Another goal of mine is to inspire future scholars like myself to pursue academic careers.”

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (NHPIs), like other indigenous populations, she says, “are at greater risk for various mental and physical health outcomes, yet they are underrepresented in research, especially outside of the State of Hawaii. Additionally, Asian Americans and NHPIs have historically been studied/grouped together as ‘Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ so less is known about the nuance among these racial/ethnic groups, despite the fact that they are two of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S. My aim is to help underrepresented groups, like NHPIs, cope with stress and adversity and increase their representation in research.”

One of her UCI mentors, Elliott Currie, professor of criminology, law and society, gives Watanabe high praise.

"Darci is a rare combination of great talent, an incredible work ethic, and a deep commitment to helping to build a more equitable society where everyone can thrive,” Currie says. “I've watched her grow since she was an undergraduate in my classes, and she just keeps getting better and better at what she does. The NSF fellowship helps give her the space to do truly important research on the determinants of health disparities that affect people's lives in very tangible ways. I'm already excited to see the results!”

Before earning her undergraduate degree, Watanabe worked as a litigation legal secretary for 20 years, most recently in intellectual property law. She is a proud member of Ainahau O Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club, a nonprofit organization whose aims are to increase awareness about indigenous Native Hawaiian cultural practices, values, language and traditions. 

Born and raised in Oahu, Watanabe moved to California in 2003 as a single mother to raise her daughter Deisha, who recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.S. in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. 

Her daughter is her best friend.

“Growing up together has been both incredibly challenging and rewarding, so I’m grateful for her patience, kindness and love,” Watanabe says. “She continues to inspire me to be a better mom, student, researcher and future academic.”

Watanabe also appreciates her UCI advisors, Professor Currie, Assistant Professor DeWayne Williams and Distinguished Professor Julian Thayer, for their mentorship.

“Dr. Currie gave me my first research opportunity as an undergraduate student at UCI and inspired me to pursue an academic and teaching career,” she notes. “I thank Dr. Williams for introducing me to psychophysiology and giving me a home in his lab. He has continually challenged me and enabled me to grow as a scientist and scholar. In addition, I thank Dr. Thayer for improving my understanding of statistics, and Drs. Marc Jarczok and Julian Koenig for their guidance on my master’s thesis and recently submitted publication.”

And for their tireless encouragement and support, Watanabe says she is ever thankful for her parents, Craig and Sandra Watanabe.