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Summer course takes 'atoll' on environment

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Date: Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Contact: Dr. Karla McDermid, (808) 933-3906

For Immediate Release

It wasn't quite Star Trek, where participants "boldly go where no man has gone before," but University of Hawai`i at Hilo Associate Professor of Marine Science Dr. Karla McDermid led a group of 13 students on a week-long educational excursion in July to a pristine place that few will ever see: Palmyra Atoll.

McDermid's MARE 394P course on atoll ecosystems was made possible by a $58,000 grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. "The purpose of the grant request was to provide opportunities to minority undergraduate students to gain exposure to environmental fields related to NOAA's mission and encourage them to pursue careers in environmental related fields," McDermid explained. "So the students that were chosen had to be underrepresented minorities, such as Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans."

In years past, the summer ecosystem course had gone to Midway Island. But a contract dispute between the State of Hawai'i and a private firm providing services to the island caused a shutdown of facilities there as well as a stoppage of air service to the remote atoll.

"When the private partner pulled out of Midway in January and Aloha Airlines discontinued air service there, I wondered, 'What atoll can we go to?'" McDermid said. "I wanted it to be an intact functioning ecosystem with birds, plants, fish, seaweed and coral. Although it's wetter, in many ways Palmyra is better than Midway because it doesn't have a bowling alley or an officers' club and students are focused on the island and the ecosystem, not on other considerations."

So the class made a detour to the atoll some 800 miles south of Hawai'i. Assisting McDermid were MARE lecturer Dr. Randy Kosaki and research assistant Brooke Stuercke. There are no commercial flights to Palmyra, so McDermid and company chartered a plane.

"We were supposed to leave on Saturday, July 7, but Palmyra is in the intertropical convergence zone," she said. "Storms build up and then they dissipate there. The day we wanted to fly there, there was a huge storm right over Palmyra. The pilot wouldn't take us down there in his prop plane. So we stayed in Honolulu and went to the Waikiki Aquarium. We lad a lecture by the hotel swimming pool, did what we could and left the next morning. It taught the students a lesson about going to remote places.

"When we got down there, it was a wonderful week. We learned techniques about natural resource management. The Nature Conservancy had four staff members down there plus four volunteers and one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager." And although the accommodations may have not been the Four Seasons, UH Hilo's intrepid ecological researchers were not exactly roughing it, either.

"We had tent cabins," McDermid said. "When I told the students they would be staying in tent cabins, they thought they would be eating hot dogs in a cold tent. But these are wonderful plasticized tent cabins that have
floors, electricity and reading lights - you can do your homework there. And we had gourmet food because there was a cook and a cook's helper and we had fresh fish that the students caught. The food was wonderful and the
students couldn't believe it." Ultimately, though, this was a field course in atoll ecosystems, not a gastronomical tour.

"They learned how to band birds, take reef fish counts, coral surveys and seaweed collections," McDermid said. "Because he's a fish expert, Randy found 61 new records of fish. That's not new species, but species that have never been recorded at Palmyra before, and the students got involved in that. We did coconut crab surveys and mark and recapture techniques on hermit crabs. We did tuna tagging based on the methods of UH Manoa professor David Itano.

"We also did 'rat patrol' because that's part of keeping an ecosystem intact," she added. "I thought, 'Oh no, they're not going to like that,' but they loved rat patrolling - slogging through the forest, checking the rattraps, looking for dead rats. We did marine mammal observations. We did a lot of snorkeling. The students kept journals. We also had the 'First Annual Palmyra Science Symposium' on the last day. All the students did 10 minute presentations on various aspects of the project."

Like many UH Hilo summer courses, and especially those in marine science, this course drew students from many other colleges and universities. Besides UH Hilo, students came from Yale, the University of Guam, Windward Community College, Maui Community College, the College of the Marshall Islands in Majuro and the College of Micronesia-FSM in Pohnpei. "Many of the students got energized about why they're studying biology, marine biology or marine science," McDermid said. "And that, I think is the reason for this grant in the first place."

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