The McNair Student Achievement ProgramThe University of Hawaii at Manoa

'Ohana Roots to Rocket Science

A presentation of the UH McNair Student Achievement Program

Diversity in space science to be the focus of free lectures

"'Ohana Roots to Rocket Science," a project of the UH McNair Student Achievement Program, presents a week of events focused on space science and diversity. Join us for stories from and about scientists whose career achievements and personal journeys give lift-off to the notion of diversity's positive impact in the realms of space science. For the first time ever on the same stage, Carl McNair and Claude Onizuka will join together to celebrate the heroic legacies of their respective brothers Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka, NASA astronauts who perished in the 1986 Challenger mission. In addition, O'ahu-born astrophysicist Dr. Harriet Natsuyama, whose expertise spans computer modeling and applied mathematics as well as ancient systems of astronomy, will deliver a lecture on evolving perspectives of cosmology and consciousness.

Astronaut kin to highlight soaring legacies in space exploration

Astronaut kin to highlight soaring legacies in space exploration
Free to the public
Thursday, March 8
Reception at 5:30 p.m., lecture at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Architecture Auditorium @UH Manoa
Parking on University Avenue or at the School of Architecture

Local-born astrophysicist presents cosmology through a pono lens

Local-born astrophysicist presents cosmology through a pono lens
Free lecture
When: Wednesday, March 7
Reception at 6 p.m., lecture at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Hökülani Imaginarium at Windward Community College in Käne‘ohe

Ohana Roots to Rocket Science enjoys lift-off

 “’Ohana Roots to Rocket Science” took flight March 5-8 as a grant-supported project of the McNair Student Achievement Program. The project sponsored school and university campus visits of distinguished speakers who encouraged students to apply their ingenuity in science, technology, engineering and math—collectively known as STEM, and follow the guidance of faculty mentors in overcoming any adversity. The McNair Student Achievement Program tries to provide the same support to UH juniors and seniors of first-generation, low-income and under-represented backgrounds to not only complete their undergraduate education in STEM but to enroll in doctoral programs that may ultimately include high priority faculty and research positions that advance science education.

How important is a group of diverse students or professionals to success in conducting the evidence-based experiments that raise the rigor of STEM disciplines? During “’Ohana Roots to Rocket Science,” guests speakers gave this simple answer:  It’s vitally important.

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In the signature event of ‘Ohana Roots” on March 8, a lecture at the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa Architecture Auditorium drew inspiration from the lives of two astronauts. The brothers of the late Challenger astronauts Ron McNair (the McNair program namesake) and Ellison Onizuka used family memories, photos, films, and even humor to impress a motivational message on an audience of 150 people, including UH McNair scholars. Carl McNair of Atlanta and Claude Onizuka of Kona both stressed that their brothers had a love of learning that helped them surmount many difficulties.

Ron McNair, who grew up in segregated South Carolina during the 1950’s, was the second African-American to become a NASA astronaut. He earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and garnered acclaimed in his chosen field of laser physics research. Ellison Onizuka, who was brought up in rural Kona, was the first astronaut of Japanese ancestry. Onizuka earned a masters degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado and was recognized for exceptional service to the U.S. Air Force. While they faced hardships, both realized their dreams of furthering the frontiers of space science knowledge by becoming NASA astronauts.  Claude Onizuka and Ron McNair credited their respective brothers for having qualities and conduct that enabled heroic achievement.

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Claude Onizuka said family members were not surprised when Ellison emerged from a field of 8-thousand candidates to be chosen for a NASA space mission.  Such was his lifelong demonstration of diligence. While Ellison privately confided about the mortal risks associated with space travel, he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in service of causes that would bring benefits to all, Claude said. Claude recalled that his astronaut brother had plans to eventually become an educator, because he wanted to help local youngsters follow in his footsteps to college success. Though he never had the chance to do this, he left behind a written message for the next generation. Claude read from the message that is now printed on every U.S. passport: “If I can impress on you one idea…let it be that the people who make this world run,….are not the cynics, the critics, or the armchair quarterbacks. They are the adventurists…the doers of this world…When they see a vacant place in our knowledge, they work to fill that void.” Claude said it would have pleased his brother that the Challenger tragedy spurred strides in improving the safety of NASA’s manned spaceflight program.

Carl McNair depicted the broad scope of his brother’s ingenuity and interests. In addition to winning acclaim for research in the field of laser physics, Ron was a proficient musician and loved to play saxophone; he enjoyed martial arts and earned a black-belt in karate. Reflecting on the racial barriers of segregation surrounding Ron’s childhood, Carl said, “My brother was someone who did not accept societal norms as being his norm.” Carl said his brother had a positive outlook that was key to his achievement. Carl spoke about the time that thieves made off with Ron’s briefcase containing his data for his Ph.D. thesis. “Ron did not waste a minute complaining about the setback. He went ahead and recreated the lost material, even though it was a painstaking process,” said Carl. This story exemplifies outstanding personal qualities that lead to good outcomes in any undertaking, said Carl McNair as he leveled his gaze at McNair scholars in the audience. “Never give up on your dream,” he urged.

Both Carl McNair and Claude Onizuka emphasized that mentorship was a powerful and positive influence in the lives of Ron and Ellison. Carl said his brother once wavered in his career choice, leaning to music, because so few African-Americans were in the fields of science. But a teacher, who recognized young Ron’s outstanding intellectual potential, counseled him to “seize the opportunity” and focus on the road less traveled. Claude Onizuka quipped that back in sleepy Kona of the 1960’s, peers were puzzled by Ellison’s avid interest in aerospace engineering, “because they had no idea what this was.” But thanks in part to support of teachers who believed in him, Ellison took the big step of leaving his Island home to pursue his academic goals.

In celebrating the outstanding scientists from historically disadvantaged socio-economic groups, the ‘Ohana Roots” guests raised an awareness diversity’s positive impact in science. While it is true that solutions to complex scientific problems are specific and objective in nature, they also depend to a substantive degree on the ability of collaborative teams to fully explore many different pathways. As “’Ohana Roots” emphasized, great ideas originate in varied experiences of culture, race and socioeconomic status. When diverse teams respond critically and act productively in scientific undertakings in either academia or professional arenas, all of society is well served.