UH Hilo alumna Narrissa Spies receives fellowship

The fellowship will support Spies in completing and defending her dissertation on coral health.

Robert Richmond and Narrissa Spies
Robert Richmond and Narrissa Spies

Narrissa P. Spies, an alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and Native Hawaiian scholar who is pursuing a doctorate in zoology at UH Mānoa, has been awarded a fellowship by The Kohala Center, a Hawai‘i Island-based nonprofit focused on research, conservation, and education. Spies will receive $45,000 and mentorship through the Hawaiian Scholars Doctoral Fellowship Program to enable her to focus on completing and defending her dissertation during the 2017–2018 academic year.

Spies is researching two species of coral that are thriving despite declining coral health due to the stress of rising ocean temperatures, pollutants, and sediment runoff.

Spies was born and raised on Hawai‘i Island and received her bachelor and master degrees at UH Hilo. Her mentor for the fellowship year is Robert Richmond, professor and director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, which is part of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center at UH Mānoa.

“The Kohala Center is committed to cultivating indigenous leadership and increasing the representation and visibility of Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiian) scholars in academia, research institutions, and publications,” says Cheryl Ka‘uhane Lupenui, president and chief executive officer of the center.

The fellowship program supports the work of emerging Native Hawaiian scholars who advance knowledge of Hawai‘i’s natural and cultural landscape and Hawaiian history, politics, and society. The one-year fellowships are funded with support from Kamehameha Schools, the Deviants from the Norm Fund, and Paul and Elizabeth Nakayama.

Investigating coral health

Narrissa P. Spies in ocean with mask and snorkel.
Narrissa Spies

Spies’s research investigates, at a molecular level, how certain species of coral are thriving despite the stress of declining coral health in Hawai‘i and beyond due to rising ocean temperatures, pollutants, and sediment runoff.

After decades of ecosystem degradation in Honolulu Harbor, compounded by a massive molasses spill in 2013, Spies observed two resilient coral species that continue to thrive in the harbor. She is studying the conditions under which these corals continue to adapt to stress and regenerate. She hopes to unlock clues that could benefit corals struggling to survive in other parts of Hawai‘i and the world.

“While corals continue to face stress as a result of climate change, these two coral species serve as excellent models for studying the resilience of corals to stress, and may provide insights that can help resource managers in other parts of the world,” Spies explains. “My work lays the foundation for understanding resilient coral species, which can hopefully give us clues as to why they’re so well adapted to inhospitable habitats such as harbors.”

The Kohala Center’s doctoral and postdoctoral fellowship programs have awarded $1.57 million since 2008 in support to 37 Native Hawaiian scholars, many of whom have since received tenure in academic institutions and published original research.

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