Student awarded fellowship for endangered Hawaiian plant research
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa graduate student Seana Walsh has been awarded the Eloise Gerry Fellowship from the Sigma Epsilon/Graduate Women in Science National Fellowships Program to continue her research on the ʻōlulu (Brighamia insignis), or “cabbage on a stick” plant—a critically endangered Hawaiian plant endemic to Kauaʻi and historically to Niʻihau. Walsh is a candidate for a masters degree in botany.
The plant is considered one of the most unusual in the Hawaiian flora. In the wild, only one individual is thought to survive, clinging to a sea cliff along Kauaʻi’s Nā Pali Coast.
Walsh will use her new graduate fellowship to conduct a pollination study of B. insignis. Its fragrant yellow and white flowers are believed to be adapted for moth pollination, but no aspect of the species’ reproductive biology has been investigated experimentally. It has been included on the federal endangered species list since 1994.
Walsh will observe the plants during the day and night to determine if any local pollinators are visiting its flowers. She will also document various aspects of the plant’s floral biology, including the volume of nectar it produces and its nectar sugar composition, and conduct a breeding system study to assess whether the plant can form fruit and viable seeds on its own.
“Having been born and raised in the Hawaiian islands, I have witnessed the rapid extinction of numerous plant and animal species found nowhere else on this planet,” said Walsh, who was born on Kauaʻi and raised on Maui. She attended Maui Community College before completing her undergraduate degree in botany at UH Mānoa in 2011.
“I have a great desire to focus on conserving and protecting Hawaiʻi’s flora and fauna,” she said. “This feels only natural to me, and I am committed to a career that will advance these goals.”