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

Pharmacy studentsMelissa 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.

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

Pharmacy students

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

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.