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Rain cloud over mountain. (Photo credit: Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash)

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa undergraduate student John Fast’s research spans analyzing Hawaiʻi’s drinking water to probing vog using a laser. His interest in science started when he entered middle school in California and participated in FIRST LEGO League robotics competitions. For three years, his team built LEGO Mindstorm robots that could navigate and solve various puzzles on a set course. Their final year of competition, the team competed and brought home the coveted golden LEGO trophy.

“This solidified my interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” said Fast. “It pushed me towards wanting to continue studying STEM throughout high school and beyond.”

man smiling
John Fast holding rainwater samples prepared for isotope analysis. (Photo credit: John Fast)

Fast decided to pursue a degree in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) after his interest in weather patterns was sparked by a project about wind energy.

Sustainability of Hawaiʻi’s freshwater

As an undergraduate student, Fast applied and received funding for a research project through the UH Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. With Atmospheric Sciences assistant professors Alison Nugent and Giuseppe Torri as his advisors, Fast analyzed oxygen and hydrogen isotopes from five rainwater collection stations across the island of Oʻahu: UH Mānoa campus, Lyon Arboretum, Waikīkī, Maunawili and Kailua.

“Because over 99% of drinking water supply in Hawaiʻi comes from rainwater, understanding where it comes from and its composition is vital for the future sustainability of the island” said Fast. “We hope that once a more complete annual database of isotopic rainfall composition is established it can be used to predict rainfall events and impact on availability of drinking water.”

Lasers reveal vog compounds

This past summer, Fast was accepted into the Earth Science on Volcanic Islands (ESVI) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program hosted at SOEST and funded by the National Science Foundation. He worked with Shiv Sharma, a researcher at SOEST’s Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, using lasers to investigate the sulfur compounds in volcanic gases, also known as vog. These compounds have the potential to form a type of clouds that are responsible for acid rain, as well as depleting ozone.

Fast and Sharma used a specialized technique, called micro-Raman spectroscopy, that utilizes a laser of a particular wavelength that shoots photons at a sample that are then scattered. The scattered photons generate a spectrum with each peak indicating a unique molecular compound. This method was used to identify the sulfur compounds present in a parcel of vog and, depending on the size and concentration of each sulfur compound, the possible impact of the vog.

“John was a critical element of our 2021 ESVI REU student cohort, sharing his local knowledge of campus and Oʻahu with our other visiting students, while successfully pursuing a really novel research project with Dr. Sharma to better understand the chemical makeup of surface aerosols emitted from Kīlauea,” said Bridget Smith-Konter, Earth Sciences professor and director of the ESVI REU program. “I’m really proud of John. It was a real pleasure to have in our summer REU program.”

Looking ahead

Fast is looking ahead to future opportunities, too.

“When I graduate in spring 2022, I would like to pursue working for the National Weather Service (NOAA) wherever they need more people,” said Fast. “I would also love to be a local weather reporter anywhere in the US. I think it would be a blast to work at a large news station and share my interest with the community.”

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Enhancing Student Success (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

For more information, see SOEST’s website.

–By Marcie Grabowski

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