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Designed to help aspiring young astronomers envision their potential to pursue a career in STEM-related fields, the Maunakea Scholars program is sending its first representative from Hawaiʻi to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), May 14–19. ISEF is the largest science and engineering fair for high school students in the world.

Ciana-lei Bence, who is also the first Maunakea Scholar from the Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi Island campus, is mentored by University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy Director Doug Simons. She is currently a high school senior and plans to go to college to pursue a PhD in astrophysics. Her ultimate goal is to come back to work in Hawaiʻi and create more community engagement in astronomy.

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“As a child, I never thought of pursuing a career in science because it seemed almost fictional to me,” said Bence. “I didn’t know anyone who actually held a job in science, especially females or POC (persons of color). With the lack of exposure and resources for STEM here on this island, I think it makes it really hard for younger students to see themselves pursuing a career in one of these fields. Growing up with these circumstances, I am ever more motivated not only to pursue my dreams of going into the field of astronomy but becoming someone that other children can look up to along with creating more opportunities for the community to become more involved in.”

“Ciana-Lei worked hard on her research project and it was really gratifying to see her work recognized in these science fairs, including the largest in the world (ISEF),” said Simons. “She is an inspiration for her fellow students, teachers, and me as we all watched her grasp complex concepts in astrophysics, statistics, and data analysis through her research project. I hope to see her one day on the IfA faculty!”

Winning Hawaiʻi science fair

Bence began preparations for the East Hawaiʻi District Science and Engineering Fair in August 2021 when she first got in contact with Simons.

Her project “Analysis of Active Galactic Nuclei Mass Across Varying Redshifts” was awarded first place in the physics and astronomy category, and she won second place overall in the senior research division at the East Hawaiʻi District Science and Engineering Fair, which was held in February 2023. In April she went on to win first place in the Physics and Astronomy division in the Hawaiʻi State science fair.

For her project, Bence did an analysis of active galactic nuclei mass evolution patterns through emission spectroscopy in hopes of finding some evidence or reasoning for one of the theories behind the M-Sigma relation. The M-Sigma relation is a significant empirical correlation between the mass of supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies and the stellar velocity dispersion surrounding them that astronomers have observed for quite some time now, yet the theories behind it are not solidified.

Even though Bence was unable to prove her hypothesis, she was glad to be able to do this project and gain hands-on experience while learning essential concepts within the field.

“My interest in astronomy has always been there, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized it was something that I actually wanted to study in the future,” Bence said. “I think the first time I actually started thinking about pursuing a career in astronomy was when I stumbled upon a YouTube video explaining string theory. From there, I was prompted to learn more about the fundamentals of the universe and I’ve been inspired ever since to be one of the scientists working to discover and test these theories.”

In her spare time, one of Bence’s favorite things to do is karaoke with her friends. Along with singing, she also enjoys creating digital art (painting and 3D modeling) and hopes to explore these fields more in college.

Initiated by Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope and Gemini Observatory, and in partnership with the Maunakea Observatories and the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education, Maunakea Scholars successfully launched in 2015 to bring Hawaiʻi’s aspiring young astronomers into the observatory community.

Designed to bring Hawaiʻi’s high schoolers into one of the world’s most advanced observatory communities, Maunakea Scholars is the first program of its kind internationally to allocate observing time at major observatories for the direct educational advancement of haumāna (students). Maunakea Scholars has worked with more than 600 haumāna statewide.