Biologist Narrissa Spies, UH Hilo alumna, inspires artwork for national STEM conference

Tuesday, October 8, 2019, 10:58pm by

The piece, by Laurie Sumiye, depicts Haumea, Hawaiian Earth Mother and Creation Goddess (ancestor to all indigenous Hawaiians) and is modeled after Native Hawaiian scientist and UH Hilo alumna Narrissa Spies.

By Susan Enright

Narrissa Spies, an alumna from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is the inspiration behind artwork created by Laurie Sumiya for the upcoming 2019 SACNAS National Diversity in STEM Conference. The conference is a three-day event to be held Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, 2019, in Honolulu.

SACNAS stands for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, an organization that supports and promotes Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

SACNAS

@sacnas

Meet the muse for the artwork: SACNISTA Narrissa Spies!✨Aside from seeing her depicted in this year’s art, Narrissa is also a graduate student in @UHNews.

🔗 Learn more about Narrissa and her research on coral reefs >> https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2018/01/23/a-role-model-who-revels-in-research/ 

Images of Narrissa smiling in the lab, looking in microscope. Background image of 2019 SACNAS artwork featuring Narrissa holding a tree.
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Spies grew up in Hilo and Kawaihae, where her childhood aspiration was to become a medical researcher. She began her studies at Hawai‘i Community College, then graduated from UH Hilo with bachelor of arts degrees in molecular biology and anthropology and a master degree in tropical conservation biology and environmental science. She received her doctor of philosophy in zoology from UH Mānoa. She is now a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

About the Artwork
“‘Ano Lani; ‘Ano-Honua” by Laurie Sumiye.

Artwork of Narrissa with volcano in background, she has her hands in the ocean cradling fish, and has a tree image on her front.The piece, titled after a traditional Hawaiian proverb meaning “A heavenly nature; an earthly nature” depicts Haumea, Hawaiian Earth Mother and Creation Goddess (ancestor to all indigenous Hawaiians) and modeled after Native Hawaiian scientist and SACNAS member Narrissa Spies. In her hands, she carries the Makalai tree, a tree of life. Behind Haumea is an active volcano (representing creation), verdant green mountains, and the Scorpio and Pleiades constellations (representing the ancestors). Below her, swims a red fish (representing nourishment), an iwa bird (representing travel and clear direction), and colorful hibiscus flowers (representing the diversity and beauty of Hawaiian people and native flora). As a whole, the artwork depicts the creation story — a tale of who we are and how we got here.

The upcoming conference is the largest multidisciplinary and multicultural STEM diversity event in the country. The three-day event focuses on empowering participants for their academic and professional STEM paths. Participants are inspired by scientific research and professional development sessions, motivational keynote speakers, an expo hall, and multicultural celebrations. “At 2019 SACNAS, you can shape your own STEM story inspired by your ancestors, mentors, and peers—nourished by diversity and fueled by passion for discovery,” notes the website about the event.

To learn more about Spies and her research while at UH, see UH Hilo alumna Narrissa Spies: A role model who revels in research (UH Hilo Stories, Jan. 24, 2018).

 

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

A quieter forest: UH Hilo biologists document loss of bird song in Hawaiian honeycreepers on Kaua‘i

Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 7:14pm by

The researchers did the study on Kaua‘i because it is in crisis mode: bird populations are crashing due to disease and habitat loss, and with that, the species are losing their songs. 

By Leah Sherwood.

Small green bird on lehua tree.
‘Amakihi (Chlorodrepanis stejnegeri). Photo by Robby Kohley.

A study led by biologists at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo documents the loss of bird song complexity and the convergence of the songs of three species of Hawaiian honeycreepers on the island of Kaua‘i.

The three species of Hawaiian honeycreepers, ‘akeke‘e (Loxops cauruleirostris), ‘anianiau (Magumma parvus), and Kaua‘i ‘amakihi (Chlorodrepanis stejnegeri), have seen rapid declines in their population numbers in the wild due most likely to avian malaria and habitat loss. The honeycreepers forage on insects and help to pollinate plants and disperse seeds in the forests of Kaua‘i, their natural habitat.

“We did this study specifically in Kaua‘i because it is in a real crisis mode,” says Kristina Paxton, an ecologist and post-doctoral researcher at UH Hilo, who was the lead author of the study. “Their populations are crashing and malaria is probably the largest driving factor of the declines. But we are not only losing the individuals, we are losing their songs. When you go into the forest in Kaua‘i it is now quieter, and that’s losing a part of what makes the Hawaiian forest what it is. The quietness of the forest is a sign that the forest is facing challenges.”

Kristina Paxton stands in front of a bookcase of biology books and two framed picture of birds.
Kristina Paxton. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri.

Paxton is affiliated with the LOHE lab, a bioacoustics laboratory at UH Hilo led by Patrick Hart, professor of biology, and Adam Pack, professor of psychology. The lab goes by the Hawaiian name LOHE, which means “to perceive with the ear” and is an acronym for Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems.

Click to read full article.

Establishing Foundations for Ecosystem Steering

Thursday, September 5, 2019, 10:07pm by

In January 2019, Dr. Cam Muir, along with 20 students and faculty members from the University of Mississippi, conducted research on the fungal recruitment by tea plants and soil ecosystems. Fungi are well known to play key roles in plant growth and can benefit plants by acting as a both mutualists and decomposers. The diversity of fungi and the impact of their species diversity on soil ecosystems is still poorly understood.

This collaboration between UH Hilo and Ole Miss has led to the recent submission of a $3.5 M grant proposal: Establishing Foundations for Ecosystem Steering.  The proposal team is composed of faculty from University of Surrey (UK), Waseda University (Japan), Georgia Institute of Technology (USA), Earth-Life Science (Japan), University of Mississippi, and University f Hawai`I at Hilo (USA).

Dr. Matt Knope awarded the Francis Davis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019, 10:03pm by

Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology, received the Frances Davis award for Excellence in Teaching. Assistant Prof. Knope joined UH Hilo in fall 2017 and quickly became known for putting teaching and his students as his highest priorities. Colleagues praise him for demonstrating his commitment and strong ability to integrate research and teaching and to directly involve students in his research. He is considered a natural and effective teacher and a rising star in the field of ecology and evolution.

Local tour company donates $25K to UH Hilo biology program to research mosquito-borne avian disease

Monday, April 8, 2019, 7:42pm by

The gift from Hawaii Forest & Trail will support research and technologies to reduce mosquito populations that spread avian disease in Hawai‘i.

Red ‘i‘iwi drinking nectar from flower.
The ‘i‘iwi is a scarlet honeycreeper native to Hawai‘i and decreasing in numbers. Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann/Wikimedia.

A local tour company with a strong conservation mission has donated $25,000 to the biology department at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The gift from Hawaii Forest & Trail will support research and technologies to reduce mosquito populations that spread avian disease in Hawai‘i.

“It’s our hope that through this donation, important research work will continue to make strides in protecting Hawaiian forest birds, including our much-loved ‘i‘iwi,” says Rob Pacheco, founder and president of the tour company.

Mosquito control

The primary reason for the continued decline of native honeycreepers is mosquito-transmitted diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox. Climate change is exacerbating the problem, and mosquitoes are beginning to move up in elevation to the last disease-free habitats on all Hawai‘i islands.

Research shows mosquito suppression can be achieved by introducing different strains of Wolbachia bacteria into mosquitoes, which drops reproduction rates. Wolbachia male-based insect control programs have been highly successful for reducing local mosquito populations around the world.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to release male mosquitoes with a different Wolbachia strain into the wild to mate with wild females, to suppress mosquito populations,” says Jolene Sutton, assistant professor of biology and top researcher into native avian disease via mosquitoes. None of the mosquitoes here are native to Hawai‘i. If we can reduce or even eliminate mosquito populations in Hawai‘i, we have a good change of saving many iconic bird species. Our research focuses on evaluating and developing novel strategies for mosquito control, including Wolbachia-based strategies and genetic ones. We want to ensure that new technologies are safe and effective.”

She adds, “This donation will go a long way to help further this work. We are very grateful to have this kind of local interest and support.”

Dr. Becky Ostertag’s publication wins Bradshaw Medal

Wednesday, February 13, 2019, 6:11pm by

The Society for Ecological Restoration recently presented the Bradshaw Medal to two outstanding papers published in its peer-reviewed journal, Restoration Ecology. Named for famed British ecologist and restoration pioneer Tony Bradshaw, the award honors scientific papers that advance the field of restoration ecology in a significant way. Susan Cordell, Rebecca Ostertag, Jené Michaud, and Laura Warman published “Quandaries of a decadelong restoration experiment trying to reduce invasive species: beat them, join them, give up, or start over?”  Their study investigated the most effective way to reforest native species in Hawai’i to recover biodiversity.  Ostertag is a member of the Biology department and Michaud is a member of the Geology department at UH Hilo, while Cordell and Warman are affiliated with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. Full article: https://www.ser.org/news/434318/

UH Hilo students featured in the University of Hawaiʻi News for the use of cutting-edge technologies to study invasive mosquitoes

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 12:41am by

Read the article and watch the video to learn more about how UH Hilo graduate student, Jared Nishimoto, and undergraduates under the supervision of Dr. Jolene Sutton are developing genetic technologies that will help control invasive mosquitoes in Hawaiʻi.

UH Hilo faculty, Dr. Matt Knope, is using his own classroom to examine best practices in undergraduate research experiences

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 12:38am by

CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) have proven effective for a wide-variety of student learning objectives and Matt Knope, along with his collaborators at Arizona State, are investigating which model of scientific inquiry results in better outcomes for students. Read the full article for more information.

Dr. Li Tao Receives NIH INBRE IV Junior Investigators Award

Wednesday, October 17, 2018, 6:15pm by

Assistant Professor Li Tao has received an INBRE IV Junior Investigators (JIs) Award for his project, “Structural and Functional Analysis of Centralspindlin”. The INBRE IV JIs Award will provide substantial funding for up to 3 years at $100,000/year in direct costs. The Tao’s lab will center its research on the molecular mechanism through which centralspindlin regulates cytokinesis. Abnormal cell division (mitosis) causes cancer. Understanding the mechanism of cell division and its regulation has thus become a key to finding cures for cancer. Cytokinesis is the last gate to control cell division. Cytokinesis is dominated by a motor complex, centralspindlin. However, little is known of the structure and function of centralspindlin. This project will address a significant knowledge gap on the regulation of cytokinesis. It will also provide clues for the development of new anti-cancer therapies.

In photo: The Tao Lab (2018). L-R: Li Tao, Joshua Lawcock, Chelsea Blaquera, Marilyn Yamamoto, Kathleen Shon, and Jamae Balagot.

UH Hilo genetics research team releases unprecedented genome assembly for endangered Hawaiian crow

Tuesday, August 14, 2018, 10:30pm by

The extraordinary findings of a genetic research team at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo studying the ‘alalā (Hawaiian crow), one of the world’s most endangered bird species, are published in the current issue of the journal Genes. Biologist Jolene Sutton, an assistant professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who specializes in evolutionary genetics, led the team of UH Hilo colleagues Martin Helmkampf, a research scientist with the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, and Renee Bellinger of the Conservation Genomics Research Group, along with collaborators from the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, San Diego Zoo Global, and Pacific Biosciences, a Silicon Valley company that provides sophisticated genomic analysis systems.

The article, “A high-quality, long-read de novogenome assembly to aid conservation of Hawaii’s last remaining crow species,” describes the high-quality reference genome that was generated to assist recovery efforts for the ‘alalā.

“The quality of this assembly places it among the very best avian genomes assembled to date, comparable to intensively studied model systems,” according to a post on the UH Hilo Biology Department News website.

Researchers and conservationists are currently using this resource to better understand genetic diversity in the ‘alalā, and to develop tools that will help inform strategic pairings as part of the conservation-breeding program. This genome assembly is now publicly available.

The paper is the cover story of the August 2018 issue of Genes, a special issue on conservation genetics and genomics.

PacBio reports:

Led by Jolene Sutton, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, the team created an assembly which has provided critical insights into inbreeding and disease susceptibility. They found that the ‘alalā genome is substantially more homozygous compared with more outbred species, and created annotations for a subset of immunity genes that are likely to be important for conservation applications.

As reported in the latest issue of Genes — and featured on its cover — the quality of the assembly places it amongst the very best avian genomes assembled to date, comparable to intensively studied model systems.

“Such genome-level data offer unprecedented precision to examine the causes and genetic consequences of population declines, and to apply these results to conservation management,” the authors state. “Although pair selection and managed breeding using the pedigree has kept the inbreeding level of the ‘alalā population at a relatively low level over the past 20 years, the intensive and ongoing conservation management of the species requires a more detailed approach.”