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 Student & Faculty Collaboration

Pharmacy students

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.

UH Hilo Alumni

Neil Scheibelhut

Sophie Milam

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.

dome habitat

interiorinterior 2

blueprint 1blueprint 2

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.

Read more information about the Biology, Astronomy & Physics programs at UH Hilo.