Stories of Excellence 2014-15
What is "excellence?" Excellence are these students, faculty, and alumni, who embody UH Hilo's strategic goal – to prepare students to thrive, compete, innovate and lead in their professional and personal lives. A quality education at UH Hilo is more than a promise, it's illustrated in the accomplishments of our students, faculty and distinguished alumni. Here is just a sampling of the wide range of achievements that members of our UH Hilo ‘ohana have accomplished throughout the year. Achieving excellence is an opportunity for every student at UH Hilo. We invite you to join us in celebrating these UH Hilo Stories of Excellence...
UH Hilo Students
Melissa Adams - Geology student
Melissa Adams, a Geology major, has discovered her passion with the help of UH Hilo and NASA. When she first came to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, her goal was just to get her degree. But soon after she arrived, opportunities opened up that allowed her to be a major part of NASA research. Before she knew it, she was speaking at conferences in Washington D.C., interning in Houston, Texas, and trekking through the mountains to find space analogs.
Adams is part Hawaiian, but as a youth she traveled with her military parents throughout the United States. She was attending a university in the Mainland when she decided to transition to UH Hilo. A geology lover at heart, she chose Hilo because of its outstanding natural features – Hilo is surrounded by the tallest mountains and the youngest volcanoes in the world. A short half-hour drive away from the University, an active lava flow is being studied right now as it moves slowly downslope.
As Adams progressed in her studies, Rob Kelso, her supervisor at the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), recommended Adams to speak about lava tubes and their potential for analog studies on different planets for a conference at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. in 2013. Adams agreed to speak at the conference, but didn't understand at the time what an honor it was. When she got there, Adams saw that she would be speaking along with the likes of Dr. Steve Squyres, a professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell University (as well as the principal investigator in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission), and Dr. Lisa Pratt, a geological science professor at Indiana University. Understandably, Adams was extremely nervous – she was an undergraduate speaking at a conference next to the orchestrators of interplanetary missions. But she soon learned that she was just as welcome there as everyone else. Her status as an undergraduate set her apart and showed that she was special.
Adams was awarded an internship with NASA in Houston for the joint research she conducted with Jacobs/NASA Scientist Trevor Graff and John Hamilton, logistics and EPO manager for PISCES. The trio employed satellite imagery to identify specific geologic properties contained in basaltic lava located on Mauna Kea. She received the prestigious Sally Ride scholarship – a scholarship in honor of the first woman in space. There she received training that would have been impossible anywhere else in the world. She learned how to use complex geologic and astronomic equipment, and she received certifications in Radiation and Laser training. Adams said the internship was like a "dream."
This internship, along with the conference, opened Adams' mind up to Planetary Geology as a career possibility for her. Not only did they provide her with the opportunity to meet hugely influential people in the field, but they also captured her imagination. Now, Adams is obsessed with Mars.
Adams graduates in December 2014 with a job waiting for her at NASA in Houston. She will be doing more of the work that she did in her internship, and living her dream of working in planetary geology. Adams wanted to thank some of her most influential professors: John Hamilton, a physics and astronomy professor, and one of her first mentors at UH Hilo (who persuaded Adams to begin to look beyond Earth in the first place), Ken Hon, and Jim Anderson from the Geology department for influencing and mentoring her.
Adams believes that it would have been impossible for her to learn and experience what she has at any university other than UH Hilo. With the outstanding local geology, and all the current research that is being done on island, she has been able to advance further than she ever thought possible.
Read more information about the Geology program at UH Hilo.
Team Hoku, featured from left to right: Casey Pearring, Brian Hall and Theodore DeRego (not pictured: Lucas DeRego).
Team Hoku - Computer Science students
UH Hilo’s Team Hoku captured first place in the 2015 Microsoft Imagine Cup Pitch Video Challenge, Games Category. Team members Brian Hall, Theodore DeRego, Lucas DeRego and Casey Pearring produced a three-minute video featuring reForge, a 2D online sci-fi sandbox game where players command customizable ships in tactical battles. Players will collect resources, trade in a player-driven company, and team up competitively to control various parts of the game universe. UH Hilo students Kristin Pederson and Kelli Yamane worked on the documentation aspects of the game, although they are not official members. Team Hoku received a $3,000 cash prize and is moving on to the Blueprint and User Experience challenges. The Imagine Cup competition is recognized as the premier global student technology competition, honoring innovations that address the world’s toughest problems.
Visit the Imagine Cup website for more details.
Read more information about the Computer Science program at UH Hilo.
Alyssa Loving - Mathematics student
Few people think of mathematics as a subject that inspires much passion from the people that study it. But for Alyssa Loving, a Mathematics major at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, it’s opened the doorway for her to explore the world and lead the frontier in new fields of mathematical research.
Alyssa Loving, a native of Honomu, was homeschooled until she began attending UH Hilo in 2011. After taking the COMPASS Math test, she placed in the third level of Calculus – much higher than the vast majority of entry level students. She continued to display mastery over mathematics, a fact that she partially attributes to the encouragement and helpfulness of the professors at UH Hilo. At every turn, Alyssa feels that the professors of the Mathematics department have helped clear the path for her to explore new opportunities.
One of those opportunities that Alyssa partook in over the fall semester of 2014 was a truly extraordinary one. There are two clear leaders in international mathematics study programs – one in Moscow, Russia, and the other in Budapest, Hungary. Through the combined efforts of Alyssa’s professors in the Mathematics department, and the impressiveness of Alyssa’s own accomplishments, she was accepted to attend the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (BSM) program, an intensive fourteen-week curriculum in advanced mathematics, studying under leading Hungarian scholars.
Alyssa describes her experience in Budapest as extremely enriching. She not only had the opportunity to explore a foreign city and immerse herself in a different culture, but was also able to learn new perspectives and ways of studying. Budapest is often listed as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – with its many castles and cathedrals, it is the 25th most popular city destination in the world. Needless to say, traveling to Budapest after living her entire life in rural Hawai‘i, was both an incredible and stressful experience. However, she didn't let the pressure of performing in a foreign environment get to her – Alyssa thrived in Budapest, and the experience of studying there is a huge step forward in her future career.
Alyssa’s professor, Dr. Reni Ivanova, has nothing but praise for her achievements. Alyssa has a history of academic accomplishments, including participating in the 2012 Pacific Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) Math program at UH Hilo, the 2013 MIT Summer Research Program, and 2014 SMALL Research Project at Williams College. She has presented her work at numerous national symposiums, and received multiple accolades, including the Undergraduate Research Poster Award at the 2013 SACNAS National Conference.
Alyssa is extremely grateful to Dr. Ivanova, who was instrumental in securing the funding for Alyssa’s semester in Budapest, as well as several other out-of-state trips for studying mathematics. Dr. Ivanova is a firm believer that it is the professor's job to ensure that students reach the best that they can be, and that with ambition, clear goals, and the aid of their professors, students can accomplish whatever they want. “It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a department to raise a student,” she says. “It is my responsibility to support my students.”
Alyssa expects to graduate this year with a Bachelor's in Mathematics. She is extremely excited for what is coming next in her life, and the direction that mathematics has the potential to take her. She believes that her rapid success is, in large part, due to the impact that the UH Hilo faculty has had on her. She says that she has always had professors that care about her success, and that she can always count on them to help her reach new opportunities. At UH Hilo, professors are able to provide lots of one-on-one time with students; this interaction means that students are able to receive opportunities that are curated for their individual wants and needs. Alyssa's trip to Budapest is a prime example of the kinds of things that students and professors who work together can accomplish.
Read more information about the Mathematics program at UH Hilo.
UH Hilo Faculty
Dr. Tam Vu & Alexandria Nakao-Eligado - Department of Economics Chair (Dr. Tam Vu on left) and Political Science and Economics student (Alexandria on right)
There is a popular misconception that most state-run undergraduate universities don’t offer many hands-on opportunities for students in their fields. Dr. Tam Vu, the Chair of the Department of Economics at UH Hilo, wants to change that. She believes in making the University a "flipped" institution - one that takes students out of the classroom and into the real world, where they learn valuable lessons and provide community services, all at the same time. In order to reach this goal, Vu utilizes student assistants whenever she can to help complete her projects. Most recently, Vu was asked by the Volcano Art Center to determine if local visual artists make a meaningful contribution to the Big Island economy.
This project applied the knowledge of econometrics - the use of mathematics and statistics to make conclusions from economic data. At that time, Vu was teaching a course on Intermediate Macroeconomics; Alexandria Nakao-Eligado, a Political Science and Economics double major, was taking Vu’s class and had also previously taken her Econometrics class. Vu helped the Volcano Art Center collect data. She and Alexandra then compiled and analyzed it, producing an eight-page professional paper documenting their research.
The result? They found that local visual artists make a large contribution to the per capita and household income of the state - i.e., when visual artists are successful, they contribute to the economy overall. This information is an incredible resource, not only to the Volcano Art Center, but to the local government as well. One of the findings of the paper was that if government funded artist events or festivals, it could result in a large influx of money entering the Hawaiian economy.
In June 2014, Vu decided to submit their report to the Academic and Business Research Institute (AABRI), a major academic conference organizer. The AABRI, after reviewing the paper, decided to invite Vu and Nakao-Eligado to Honolulu to present their work at the AABRI conference, enabling them to communicate their research on a larger scale, as well as publish their paper as a conference proceeding. The Volcano Art Center ultimately used their findings to write a report they submitted to the County of Hawai‘i.
This kind of hands-on experience is crucial for student résumés, applications for graduate school, and when competing for internships. Nakao-Eligado's research collaboration with Dr. Vu gave her a huge advantage, giving her relevant experience in the field she is planning on entering. Vu is trying to create as many opportunities as possible for every student to get that same level of participation in their learning. Just recently, she had her class produce the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for Hilo. Her students visited various super markets, department stores, gas stations, and other businesses in Hilo to calculate the cost of living index – something that had never been done here before. They found that Hilo is the seventh most expensive city to live in the entire country, Honolulu being the second most expensive, after New York. In this instance, each of her students received hands-on experience collecting data and analyzing it, all while benefiting the local community.
Regarding student involvement and participation, Vu has this to say to potential students: “Because [the university] has small classes, it makes it easier to help students when they initiate any project. Many students want to do things, and at this school it is easy for them to do so.” The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo makes it easy for students to start their own ventures and learn in a hands-on environment. When students pioneer a project, they have great support staff to help them take it to fruition. And when professor and student efforts are combined with the Office of Applied Learning Experiences (ALEX), students are given many opportunities to dip their toes into the waters of their future careers.
Read more information about the Economics program at UH Hilo.
Elizabeth Stacy - Associate Professor of Biology
Elizabeth Stacy, an associate professor of Evolution and Biology, loves trees. She came to Hawai‘i a decade ago when she was offered a job at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Not long after her arrival, she discovered that Hawai‘i was a veritable treasure trove of information on tree evolution. She quickly became fascinated by the local flora, especially ‘ōhi’a. She was surprised to learn that no one in Hawai‘i was studying ‘ōhi’a, at least not from an evolutionary perspective. This gave her an unique opportunity to study this native Hawaiian tree, which is currently in the process of diversifying into various species. It is also in several different stages of the speciation process, making it perfect for studying both ‘ōhi’a specifically, and how trees in general evolve.
Elizabeth Stacy received her B.S. in Pre-Veterinary Medicine from Penn State University. Soon after, she volunteered on a forest research team that traveled to the Amazon. That’s what first hooked her on studying tropical rainforests and tree speciation. Upon her return, she began pursuing her M.S. at the University of Georgia – this time switching from veterinarian studies to mating patterns for trees in Panama. She later received her Ph.D. from Boston University for her work in Sri Lanka, studying species boundaries and reproductive isolation of trees in local rainforests. Before moving to Hilo in 2004, she studied and taught in Montreal, Quebec, where she instructed a highly diverse group of students. She currently teaches 7 classes at UH Hilo, including upper division Evolution and Biodiversity courses.
Stacy received the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award in 2010, which funded $750,000 for her research of ‘ōhi’a. Stacy has one year remaining in the five-year grant, and has involved over 20 students in her studies. She often travels to Oahu to examine what she says is the most interesting thing that she has learned so far – there is a specific variety of ‘ōhi’a that only grows on the Waianae ridge on Oahu, and it appears that it is suffering from ‘inbreeding depression’, a term that describes the deteriorated health of ‘ōhi’a seedlings due to similarities between breeding partners. Part of the problem with this type of ‘ōhi’a is that it has such a small habitat; a major worry of Stacy and her crew is that when sea levels rise and the climate begins to change, the tree will be pushed out of its habitat and may go extinct. While this would no doubt be somber outcome, Stacy also thinks that it is one of the most interesting things her research has uncovered.
Stacy feels that the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is an incredible place, both to teach and learn, offering a low teacher to student ratio so that professors get lots of quality one-on-one time with their students. The University is also surrounded by an ecological gem, an unparalleled resource of biological and evolutionary research. The Big Island is home to a huge variety of ecosystems – 8 of the world's 13 climate zones exist within 2 hours of the University.
Elizabeth Stacy is a hugely dedicated researcher and a great boon to UH Hilo. She has published her work in many academic journals, and is currently in the approval process for another five-year grant to aid her in her research. Stacy hopes that at some point, she will be able to involve more local Hawai‘i residents in her research, and tie the evolution of the ‘ōhi’a together with the cultural significance of this distinctive tree.
Read more information about the Biology program at UH Hilo.
Nicolas Turner - Computer Analyst & Geospatial Researcher
Nicolas Turner, a research employee and alumni of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is performing some groundbreaking research in an area that is of incredible use to the local community. Through the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones as most people call them, Nicolas Turner and the rest of his team at the Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization (SDAV) lab at UH Hilo have been mapping the current lava flow in the Puna district of the Big Island and submitting their findings to the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense.
Nicolas Turner, a Maui native, started out his post-high school education at Maui Community College. While there, he took a GIS (Geography Information System) class, which was the first time he realized the fascinating science behind mapping. He came to UH Hilo as an undergraduate in 2001 to study Geography and Environmental Studies, largely due to that class inspiring him to take his studies in geography further. After graduating in 2011 and putting several internships under his belt, he began working for his alma mater. He has been at the SDAV lab for the last three years, utilizing new drone technology to do several projects for the university.
Turner’s first project was the Hawai‘i County Food Self Sufficiency Baseline 2012. He worked with Jeffrey Melrose, an Urban and Regional Planner in Hilo, and Donna Delparte, PhD at the University of Idaho, to map out the agriculture land along the Hamakua coastline. He did this using drones. He and his team at SDAV would fly drones above the farms to discover what kinds of crops are being grown. This information was submitted to the Hawai‘i County Department of Research and Development, and was later used to discover how self-sufficient the state is in terms of food supply. Without Turner’s UAVs, it wouldn't have been possible to know what kinds of food were being grown along the Hamakua Coast, and impossible to develop a clear picture of Hawai‘i County’s self sufficiency status.
More recently, Turner has turned his UAVs to the lava flow currently burning its way through the Puna district. With such a damaging force threatening so many homes and properties, it is crucial that the lava flow is mapped accurately and often. However, this has caused several problems for both the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense and the Hawai‘i Volcano Observatory, both of which map the lava flow daily. The flow is very long, has several breakouts, and does not follow a convenient or clear path. Many different ways have been attempted to map it, but each of them have their own specific drawbacks. For instance, the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense has been attempting to map and observe the flow via helicopter. Helicopters are very useful tools for this kind of research, however, they are very expensive to charter, and sometimes the updrafts from the heated air directly above the lava flow cause uncomfortable and potentially dangerous lurches in the helicopter's flight path. Satellite images are also used, but they are by necessity extremely low resolution. For an application that requires precision like the lava flow does, low resolution photos don’t make very much sense. The only other way that they had been using to map the lava flow is on foot, which poses its own problems, both with danger and practicality. But Turner saw an opportunity to use his UAVs to map the flow, both without putting anyone in danger and while taking very high resolution photos. Turner and his team travel out to the site of the lava flow daily and fly their semiautonomous UAV above the flow. Their UAV is equipped with a digital camera that takes hundreds of photos of the flow. They then take the data back to the university and stitch all of the photos into a single image. Using this technique, they've been able to create highly detailed maps of the flow. Soon, they are hoping to take it even further, by collecting inflation and flow temperature data with their cameras. All of this information is incredibly helpful for the Civil Defense, and enables them to create highly detailed images of the lava flow.
Nicolas Turner is huge asset for the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and the local community. His research provides invaluable information for the residents of the Puna District; his pioneering methods could become the primary means of small-scale mapping in the future. Turner has several people that he would like to thank for motivating him and helping him with his research – namely Chris Nishioka, his mentor at the SDAV lab, and Ryan Perroy, who helped build out the UAV program at UH Hilo. Turner believes that when you are living in Hawai‘i and attending the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, no career is out of reach. With an incredible fount of research all around the school, Turner says that whatever you want to do, Hawai‘i is the place to do it.
Read more information about the SDAV Lab at UH Hilo.
Emmeline de Pillis - Professor of Management
UH Hilo Business students have been excelling in international competition, thanks to a capstone class taught by Professor of Management, Dr. Emmeline dePillis. The course runs students through the Business Strategy Game (BSG) – a computer simulation that allows the player to create and control various aspects of a business as if it were an actual venture. Over 50,000 students in 53 countries play the BSG annually. UH Hilo students have repeatedly scored in the top 100. In 2013, Mark Tokuuke came in first place internationally with a perfect score. During the fall 2014 semester, UH Hilo had four teams rank in the top 100 worldwide. Using the Business Strategy Games as a tool, Dr. de Pillis gives students a realistic outlook on future careers in business, preparing them to excel in their field.
Dr. Emmeline de Pillis did not start out in business. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California San Diego in Mathematics and Computer Science. However, soon after she began her career, she realized that there was an aspect of her work that she did not understand – mainly how organizations functioned. One of the things that she did in her career was sales training, where she would teach employees how to sell a product. She really enjoyed helping people take their lives into their own hands and teaching them how to be successful at what they were trying to do. This was one of the primary motivating factors that persuaded her to pursue teaching as a career. After a few years in her corporate career, Dr. de Pillis decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Southern California, with the goal of becoming a business professor. In August of 1997 with doctorate in hand, she left California to begin teaching at UH Hilo, and has been here ever since.
The BSG course at UH Hilo is the capstone course for all Business majors, and must be taken right before graduation. It’s goal is to give students as close to a real world experience as can be offered in a university setting. To accomplish this, it takes into account the many different factors of a hypothetical business: how much money is spent on advertisements and products, the quality of the products, etc. It even allows students to pursue celebrity endorsements. All of these many details come together to provide students with a rich and rewarding experience.
Stacey Aurway, a business major at UH Hilo currently enrolled in the BSG class, has nothing but praise to give about Dr. de Pillis’ teaching strategies: “She doesn't sugarcoat - especially for this kind of class, you don't need to come out of it with a warm and fuzzy feeling, you need to be given the facts and be prepared for what's really out there, because if you send students out there with a false sense of security, you're just setting [them] up for failure.” Dr. de Pillis agrees, saying: “I know how savage the market is. I am very well tied in with the employer community and the job market. For our students to be competitive, they really have to shine.”
While the current semester of the Business Strategy Game course has only just begun, Dr. dePillis has high hopes for her students. One of her students, Debora Cannolas, has already surpassed the national level of 3 out of 6 criteria in the game. Stacey Aurway is also showing great skill in the game. Dr. de Pillis feels that UH Hilo is a fantastic school to study and teach business at. She believes that the focus on learning is genuine here, and that the small class sizes facilitate better learning for students. Stacey Aurway agrees, saying that she adores her professors.
Using the BSG, Dr. Emmeline dePillis is able to prepare her students in a way that would have been impossible before, helping them immeasurably when they graduate and pursue a career in their field.
Read more information about the Business program at UH Hilo.
UH Hilo Alumni
Dr. Louisa Ponnampalam (B.A. in Marine Science)
Few people’s studies can be said to be quite so international as Louisa Ponnampalam’s. A UH Hilo alumni, Ponnampalam was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she went to primary and high school. She learned English at school and from her mother, and when she graduated from school in Malaysia, she decided to move her studies to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. It’s there that she earned her Bachelor's of Arts in Marine Science, before moving on to get her doctorate at the University of London. Her experience there included research work in Oman. From Southeast Asia, to Oceania, Europe, and the Middle East, Ponnampalam’s studies took her around the world and prepared her for the work that she does now in her home country, Malaysia.
“It’s been my lifelong dream to study Marine Science,” said Ponnampalam. “I’ve always loved the outdoors, which makes a 9-5 cubicle job very unappealing.” She compares her ‘crazy obsession’ with dolphins to the ‘dolphin version’ of a Star Wars obsession: wearing dolphin shirts, earrings and necklaces; watching documentaries about dolphins; observing marine researchers out at sea with their dive gear and giant underwater cameras. When she first decided to be a marine biologist, she didn't really know what that meant, but she pursued her passion, which led her all around the world.
Ponnampalam’s college education started at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, where she whipped through her studies at an incredible pace and graduated with a Bachelor's of Arts in Marine Science in 2003. A recipient of tuition waivers, she also worked several jobs while being a full-time student taking as many as 21 credits. “Hawai‘i is such a fantastic place to study the natural sciences, especially marine science,” said Ponnampalam. “Hawai‘i has the benefit of being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, which is home to a diverse array of marine life.”
After graduating from UH Hilo, she decided to look beyond the United States for her post graduate education. She finally settled on the University of London’s Scotland branch. However, she soon realized that the Scottish climate, with its year-round cold weather, slanted rain, and marshlands, were not really to her liking. “That’s part of the reason why I decided to perform my thesis work in Oman.”
After earning her doctorate degree in 2009 from the University of London, Ponnampalam moved back to her hometown, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where she was able to start her lifelong career dream – working in the field of marine science. She currently works as a research fellow at the University of Malaya, where she performs research and publishes journal articles. She also serves as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean and Sirenian Specialist Groups. Over the course of her research and work, she has come to realize that science does not serve a useful purpose unless it is accompanied by outreach and education efforts. Ponnampalam said, “While science research is good, too little of that research is spreading to non-scientists. The lay-person usually doesn't sift through journal articles, and may never have the chance to learn the exciting new things that scientists are learning.” With this in mind, Ponnampalam founded a new non-profit that she dubbed MareCet, with the goal of educating the public of Malaysia about marine mammals and the marine environment. It also aims to teach children why conservation efforts are so important today. “Applying what we learn from our research is just as important as the research itself. This makes the research work more meaningful and rewarding.”
Ponnampalam’s fervent passion and work in marine life research and conservation efforts over the years have not gone unnoticed. She was awarded the prestigious 2014 Marine Conservation Fellowship from the PEW Charitable Trust, renowned worldwide for its support of work to "improve public policy, inform the public and invigorate civic life." The first Malaysian to receive this outstanding award, she will receive $150,000 to conduct a three-year study on dugongs in Malaysia; her research will assist in international dugong conservation efforts. Ponnampalam’s accomplishments were also recognized by Malaysia’s Prime Minister, who presented her with the 2014 National Youth Premier Award. She was also invited to be a speaker at the TEDx talk in Kuala Lumpur, where she presented her talk on Whales, Dolphins and What the Sea is Saying. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_OAwbl8WJY
Dr. Louisa Ponnampalam’s journey of her childhood dream to her list of highly impressive achievements is nothing short of inspirational. Her message to students at UH Hilo and the world-at-large: “People should start thinking that if they love the environment, if they love conservation, they don’t have to become biologists or ecologists. They can take up biology, but they can also take up social sciences. That’s as much a part of conservation as natural science. In the end, conservation is not a one team battle. It’s everybody’s battle.”
Read more information about the Marine Science program at UH Hilo.
Neil Scheibelhut (B.A. in Cell & Molecular Biology) & Sophie Milam (B.S in Astronomy; B.A. in Physics) - UH Hilo alumni selected for Mars simulation (Neil on left and Sophie on right.)
From the ancient Romans to H.G. Wells, humans have always been passionate about Mars. Soon, we may even be able to establish a scientific research colony on the red planet. But in order for this sci-fi story turned reality to come true, huge amounts of research need to be done – a large quantity of that research involves how the human body and mind react to isolation and separation.
The University of Hawai‘i, along with NASA and Cornell University, have come up with a new research plan: the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program. The program hopes to create as realistic an analog to Mars as possible while still conforming to the restraints of planet Earth. On the slopes of Mauna Loa, a dome has been constructed at an abandoned quarry 8,200 feet in elevation. All together (including living space and a small workshop), the dome has only 1,462 square feet of usable space – less than the average American home. And as of October 15, 2014, 6 crew members will live in the dome for 8 months, without ever once leaving. Two of the selected crew members are UH Hilo alumni Neil Scheibelhut and Sophie Milam.
Exterior and interior dome habitat photos by Sian Proctor. Habitat sketches by Angelo Vermeulen.
Sophie Milam, a UH Hilo alumni originally from Texas, specializes in robotics. All of the inhabitants of the Mars simulation dome have personal projects to attend to while they are in isolation. Sophie's goal in her own words, is to “develop evolutionary algorithms for tensegrity structures robotics.” In anticipation of her seclusion, Sophie has been eating all of her favorite foods. The supplies brought into the habitat must be able to last for at least 2 years; everything the researchers will be eating will either be freeze or air dried. She has also prepared to leave her dog, boyfriend, and hedgehog behind, who won't be allowed to visit her. From now on, Sophie, Neil, and the other crew members will have to live under near constant surveillance, with cameras in all common areas. No drugs, alcohol, or tobacco can enter the habitat, and all crew members must wear biosensors that will monitor their various biological systems.
When all of the project confines are listed, the dome sounds almost like a prison. But neither Sophie Milam nor Neil Scheibelhut feel that way; both of them expressed their enthusiasm. “I am incredibly excited. To me, this research is extremely important to fulfilling a mission to put a human on Mars. To be a part of it is an amazing feeling,” Neil said. “I've always wanted to be a Mars astronaut, and for me this would be [confirmation] that I could survive the trip to Mars,” said Sophie. Of course, they do have some reservations – because this is a research mission, there are many questions that the crew members are "guinea pigs" to answering. In some ways, this is just as much of a social experiment as a scientific one. Neil said: “I am definitely nervous. Will the crew get along for 8 months? Will there be drama? Will I get cabin fever? Will we be faced with an emergency? What will I miss in the outside world while I'm isolated from it? I'm sure the nerves will die down once we are in the habitat and start to get into a routine, but for now, I've certainly got some butterflies.”
No matter which way you look at it, this project is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind opportunity for both the crew members and the researchers surveying them. When asked about research opportunities at UH Hilo, Neil had this to say: “I think the Big Island as a whole is an amazing place for research…UH Hilo has a large hand in that research, and continues to bring in new faculty, which only serves to expand on those opportunities.” Both Neil and Sophie expressed their appreciation toward John Hamilton, an instructor of physics and astronomy at UH Hilo. He was the main instigator of their involvement in the HI-SEAS program.
Someday, the invaluable data that is obtained will help NASA and private contractors develop new space programs and housing systems on Mars and the Space Station. However, both Sophie and Neil have an ulterior motive beyond pure altruism – both of them hope to some day go to Mars themselves.