Students conducting research
Students investigate climate driven shifts in Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA for water resource and land management solutions. Photo Credit: Louise Economy

Community outreach and sharing information with the public and government agencies is the ultimate goal of climate research at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

Graduate student Louise Economy, with the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program, along with faculty advisor and Professor of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner, have taken on a project over the last year that focuses on pathogens in coastal waters such as staph (Staphylococcus aureus) and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus) that increase the risk of infection to beach goers. MRSA is the most common form of staph infection in the world.

The project is entitled “Investigating climate driven shifts in Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA for water resource and land management solutions.” Economy is not only focusing on creating a better understanding of the pathogens in the ocean environment and then communicating that information to the public, but also is developing a predictive model of staph and MRSA with rainfall. The predictive model will be able to assess the risk of staph and MRSA with changing climate patterns.

Partners in the project are Ayron Strauch, a hydrologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and Chad Shibuya, a registered nurse at Hilo Medical Center. Funding for the research is from the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center at UH Hilo. The center is a partnership between U.S. Geological Survey and a university consortium that includes UH Mānoa (the consortium lead) and University of Guam, in addition to UH Hilo.

Mikala Jones, UH Hilo undergraduate, and Jazmine Panelo, a recent UH Hilo graduate and current research technician, are providing support on Economy’s project as well as conducting their own projects.

Jones’s project is more about public perception and opinion of staph and MRSA, while Economy is concentrating on climate change and working with different governmental departments to develop the predictive model that would inform water users of the health risks under different weather conditions. Producing outreach material for the public about staph and MRSA is on the agenda for the research team.

Louise Economy

Helping communities understand health risks

Economy and Jones’s research projects are community oriented. The final goal is to use the scientific data they collect to better educate the public in regard to health risks associated with water use. This information will allow the public to make educated decisions about what health risks they are comfortable taking when going into the water.

Wiegner says to accomplish this, first the researchers need to understand the environmental pattern of the pathogens, focusing on near shore water where people do recreational activities. Then the public needs to be educated about the risks.

Jones says she expected more pushback from the community when conducting her interviews and surveys because “most people associate pathogen and risk with limitation, avoidance or restriction, but that was not the most immediate feedback.”

To Jones’s surprise, the community members were happy to talk about it, learn and gain more information. Overall, there was positive feedback from the community.

For more information, read the full article at UH Hilo Stories.

—A UH Hilo Stories article written by Anne Rivera, a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor

This is the fifth story in a series of articles on climate research at UH Hilo.