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Born and raised on the island of Guam, where she attended St. John’s School from kindergarten, Nicole Sulla Mathews said coming to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa to pursue a bachelor’s degree was a major change in almost all aspects. One thing that didn’t change, however, was her longstanding interest in environmental science.

“Ever since middle school, I have been interested in environmental science,” Mathews said. “It started with water sampling but expanded to soil science, as well. I am very fortunate to have a great support system from my family and teachers at St. John’s and was provided with the great opportunity to take my science projects to island-wide and international science fairs.”

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Nicole Sulla Mathews

As an undergraduate student in the Global Environmental Sciences program in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), Mathews completed a few oceanography courses and learned, for the first time, about research opportunities in that discipline.

Research in the open ocean

Mathews joined the Hawaiʻi Ocean Time-series program for one of their monthly cruises, 60 miles north of Oʻahu at Station ALOHA. Onboard the cruise, she got first-hand experience with oceanographic sampling and testing, while helping UH Mānoa oceanographers conduct their research.

“I loved being at sea and learning about ocean science,” said Mathews. “That led me to pursue a senior thesis focused on microbial oceanography.”

Working with UH Mānoa oceanography professor Angelicque White and researcher Fernanda Henderikx Freitas, Mathews analyzes images from an Imaging Flow Cytobot, a machine that captures images of microscopic organisms for identification of marine plankton.

“Since our automated classifier is still learning how to accurately classify the organisms, I work on manually annotating and sorting taxa [various types of microbes], ideally to the genus level,” said Mathews. “For my thesis, I am annotating images from the research cruises PARAGON 1 and 2 and will be looking for trends in different classes of microbes during various stages of algal blooms.”

“It is always a bit of a thrill to see someone first lay eyes on the wild diversity of microbial characters that allow our oceans to thrive,” said White. “I get to see the outcomes but Fernanda Henderikx Freitas has been working directly with Nicole and others to create a training pipeline for students to quickly learn relevant taxonomic details about ocean plankton and help train our machine learning tools to see what we see. It’s an exciting time in the arc of ocean science.”

Future plans

Following graduation in spring 2024, Mathews plans to pursue her teaching certification in secondary science.

“My mom and brother are both teachers at my alma mater and I hope, sometime in the future, I will be teaching alongside them,” Mathews said. “I also want to continue in school and pursue a masters in oceanography where I can continue my undergraduate research and hopefully go back out to sea.”

For more information, see the SOEST website.

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