Tongan scientist, Dr. Afa K. Palu, PhD | “Modern science illuminates the intelligence of our ancestors”


Dr. Afa Palu shares some highlights of his educational and scientific work: his leading research on Pacific Islander U.S. high school dropouts, the creation of an education radio talk show and his extensive research on the health benefits of the noni (Morinda citrifolia L.), a plant native to the Pacific and elsewhere. He hopes to see more Pacific Islander students embracing the academic challenge of pursuing college and recognizing the multitude of pathways to higher education.

Dr. Afa Palu (right) with the Nuku Hiva team.

Dr. Afa Palu (right) with the Nuku Hiva team.


Tell us about your research on Pacific Islander U.S. high school dropouts.

Research on high school dropouts is near and dear to my heart, and my interest in this topic dates back to my childhood. I grew up with a father who was an elementary school dropout. Unfortunately, when he grew up, family members told him he wasn’t smart enough to go to high school, and that directly impacted the type of professional opportunities available to him.

I had so much respect for my dad who worked extremely hard in the cement and copra businesses. He would leave Sunday at midnight and come back home Saturday at night from work, because we’re not allowed to work on Sundays in Tonga. My mother would often send me to take hot food to him, and whenever I’d see him, it would break my heart to see him covered in cement. I’ll always remember his wise words of advice, and that was to go to school, because he did not want me to struggle in a similar industry. He wanted me to pursue my dreams.

Years later when the opportunity arose, I decided to look up statistics on Pacific Islander high school dropouts and was disappointed to find only 2 studies. I decided to take it upon myself to research the state of Pacific Islander high school dropout rates in the U.S. and came up with a series of strategies to help students pursue college.

Dr. Afa K. Palu | Tongan scientist and educational researcher.

Dr. Afa K. Palu | Tongan scientist and educational researcher.

Thanks to your research, you now have a framework to help guide Pacific Islander youth out of the cycle of dropping out of high school. Tell us about your education-focused radio talk show.

I created an education-focused talk show called Lofa Tala Matangi (Tern Telling Wind) in response to the high school dropout rates in our community, and it airs every Wednesdays from 6-9pm Utah time to about 12-15,000 listeners every week. The goal of this radio show is to share my research findings and highlight the many educational pathways to inspire Pacific Islanders to pursue higher education. We’ve interviewed people like Utah’s Attorney General and the president of Utah Valley University. I’m grateful to say that over my career, through the radio talk show and free 1:1 mentorship, I have helped over 200 plus students get their GED, and even go to D1 schools.

Besides your educational research, you are also a seasoned molecular biologist who has published extensive research on the healing properties of the noni (Morinda citrifolia L.). How has it been utilizing modern science to research the noni, which has has been used for centuries by your ancestors?

I am a descendant of the Tu’i Tonga dynasty and grew up in a family of Tongan traditional healers, where the healing traditions go back to the 1700s. My first experience on earth involved the use of the noni. When I was born, I had difficulty breathing, and the hospital at the time was not set up to deal with those types of complications. My grandmother got a small noni fruit, smashed it, added water to it, and gave me the juice of the noni fruit. The next day, I left the hospital with no breathing problems.

As a kid, my mom would always ask me to collect noni. I never liked the taste or the smell, and I would always complain to my mom. I remember her telling me “one day, you’ll thank me.” Well, she was right!

Years later, I was getting my Master’s in Molecular Biology with a focus on Plant Genetics, when I was presented with an opportunity to join a noni research team. Ever since then, I’ve been conducting research on noni and creating a string of products. My research has allowed me to travel the world all the way to Russia, Japan, here and in the Pacific.

After many years of studying noni, one thing has become clear. Our ancestors used indigenous, traditional ways to discover the medicinal healing properties of the noni, and modern science simply illuminates the intelligence of our ancestors. I am grateful for my Tongan ancestors, and every time I do research, I always sense that they are guiding me and looking over my shoulders to make sure that I am doing it right.