Pacific Island students pursue sciences

October 12th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Features, Oct. 2010

Mailie Ngiriou, from Palau doing research in a lab

Undergraduate Research and Mentoring program participant Mailie Ngiriou, from Palau, researches the photosynthetic capacity of co-occurring reef algae.

Seventeen students squeeze into a basement room at Lyon Arboretum’s micro-propagation lab, where 14,000 miniature plants grow in test tubes. “These plants have been cultured from tissues. They’re grown here until outdoor restoration sites are available,” explains lab director Nellie Sugii.

The students take notes and ask questions.

They’re here thanks to Undergraduate Research and Mentoring in the Biological Sciences, a program sponsored by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and Chaminade University. Like the seedlings bound for the field, they’re being nurtured to boost underrepresented populations in the biological professions.

Matched with mentors, URM students spend 10 weeks during the summer doing lab and field research, writing reports, listening to experts and visiting places like Lyon Arboretum, Hanauma Bay, Bishop Museum, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Papahana Kuaola conservation education program. They are immersed in concepts such as species extinction and propagation, climate change and conservation.

At summer’s end, they present results of their research projects in a public symposium. Five students continue in the year-round program, which prepares them for graduate studies.

young researcher with pipette

Galliart James from Pohnpei studying genetic variations of two marine snails.

“We’re batting a thousand,” says Celia Smith, UH Mānoa professor of botany and one of the five leaders of the 12-year program funded by National Science Foundation grants to UH’s Pacific Biosciences Research Center. All four year-round students graduating under the current grant are pursuing graduate school.

“If it hadn’t been for URM, my life would have been very different,” says Peltin Pelep, a Micronesian who recently began work on his master’s degree in tropical conservation biology and environmental science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

“I wanted to be a teacher, but my mom worked her whole life to support us, and she could not afford an airfare ticket for me to go to college here. I’m so grateful for the URM program because it opened the opportunity doors in my field.”

URM students work on individual science projects with help from their mentors. At UH Mānoa’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, recent graduate Lupita Ruiz-Jones investigated the effects of invasive algae on water flow across the reef and the movement of larvae that settle there. Using a laser scanning microscope, she studied the larvae-to-juvenile metamorphosis of Phestilla sibogae, a nudibranch (sea slug) that feeds on coral.

“Before URM, I never designed my own project or analyzed my own data or wrote a report about my project,” she says. The Mexico-born Sante Fe resident has been accepted to Stanford University, where she plans to study global warming and ocean acidification.

The success of URM belies its humble beginnings. “I threw a party and no one came,” admits Professor of Zoology Michael Hadfield, program director and mentor to both Ruiz-Jones and Pelep.

young researcher in lab

Sean Cantero from Pohnpei doing videomicroscopy, prepping a specimen of marine worms.

“We put posters everywhere, but we only had three students that first summer.” Then he and two colleagues visited colleges in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, American Samoa and Palau, enlisting faculty members’ help to boost applications.

“It’s important to get people from community colleges into four-year degrees,” he emphasizes. “Pacific colleges need people who look like Peltin teaching people who look like Peltin. They need mentors from their own culture. That’s what our graduates can do.”

By design, students pursue research pertinent to their Pacific island homes. Projects range from investigating coral bleaching and establishing a coral nursery to testing the salt-spray tolerance of invasive kiawe trees and measuring photosynthesis in brown algae. Students have observed the behavior of Hawaiian monk seals, examined the types of microalgae fish eat and compared different populations of tree snails using DNA markers to see if the genetic diversity has changed over time.

“My life revolves around the tides,” exclaims Kauaʻi participant Patricia Cockett, who examined the mortality of intertidal snails exposed to warming seawater. Bethany Kimokeo of Kahaluʻu scrutinized mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from 400 endemic fish-scale samples to determine how the fish interbreed.

Students work in the botany department and Pacific Biosciences Research Center on the Mānoa campus; at UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, Kewalo Marine Laboratory and Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island; at Chaminade University; and at other sites around Oʻahu, depending on their project and their mentor’s specialty.

“I get called to Waikīkī, the North Shore, anywhere monk seals haul out,” says Evailaufaumalu Sala, whose mentor, Chaminade Director of Environmental Studies Gail Grabowsky, put the American Samoa student in touch with a volunteer monk-seal-watch organization.

Jorg Anson spent most of his time in Maunalua Bay, where algae removal is a hot topic. He designed a system of traps arranged throughout the bay to collect sediments, which he measures and weighs. “The algae are holding the sediments and not letting them be naturally flushed out into the open ocean” he explains. “I want to prove that removing the algae is essential for recovery of the bay.”

Anson studied marine science at a vocational high school in Pohnpei. “We did oyster, clam and coral farming, so I got to work on aquaculture but not research,” he says. His instructor at the College of Micronesia recommended him for the URM program. After graduate school, he plans to work with conservation agencies at home.

“I hope one day we can establish a marine science lab in Pohnpei. It all starts with making sure our kids go into this field so they can understand environmental hazards like global warming and rising seas. It’s crucial for our island’s economy.”

“I’ve learned that my topic of research doesn’t have to be groundbreaking,” says Patra Foulk. The Big Island student found her calling in the ocean’s role in spreading plant species in coastal ecosystems. “We’re building a wall (of scientific information) and every little brick helps.”

“I used to think science was easy because you’re seeking truth,” confides Mark Pascua of Kunia, Hawaiʻi. “Now I know it’s complicated. Answering one question will bring up more questions. It’s a process.”

Marshall Islander Jefferson Jack’s project led to an unexpected find: polyps of parasite-infected corals shrank before bleaching when subjected to heat stress.

“We hypothesized that corals might bleach faster if diseased,” says Jack’s mentor, Greta Aeby, assistant researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. “We don’t know if the shrinking occurred because the coral was putting more energy into fighting off the parasite or if the parasite is very sensitive to heat. More research is needed.”

“My island is made of corals,” reflects Jack, “but before, I didn’t know they were animals and you shouldn’t walk on them. Now, I really want to protect my corals.”

“A lot of our former interns are doing great things—teaching school, working for environmental groups and aquatic resources departments on their home islands,” Hadfield says. “One of my first interns, a Yapese woman named Vanessa Fread, is now a coastal resource specialist and one of the key people in a major environmental organization, the Yap Community Action Program.”

Hadfield and other mentors are optimistic that all their interns will make a difference. They see URM as an incubator’nurturing growth for students who might otherwise miss out on the opportunities, discoveries and hope that a career in science can offer.

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