For University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo biology professor Li Tao, the switch to online education is challenging, but he keeps an even keel thanks to students, faculty, and administrative cooperation amidst the shifting demands of the new learning format.
“As a professor, my duty has never changed as my utmost priority is supporting the students’ success,” he says.
Tao’s kind, calm, and collected approach reassures his upper-division cell biology students that they will not be given a source of added stress. His commitment to seeing things from student perspectives has garnered praise during this time of uncertainty. In an anonymous survey submitted last spring, students wrote they were impressed with the biologist’s organizational skills.
He “uploaded recorded lectures in a timely fashion,” writes one student about Tao’s cell biology class. “He would make sure his lectures were uploaded before the times our class would actually meet. This really helped to maintain the same study schedule as I had with face to face courses.”
Though the biologist’s students attribute the smooth transition to Tao’s methodical style, he believes it’s because “students were very cooperative and understanding of the current pandemic situation” as well as the united efforts of the biology department.
“Transitioning these courses online has not been easy,” says Tao, “but I would say that it has been successful because we have a great faculty team in the biology department. We exchange our ideas and methods through frequent departmental Zoom meetings and emails to find the best way for a course to be taught.”
Tao has made the in-person lab components of his courses, where students can come into his research lab at UH Hilo and work on special projects, available this semester on a voluntary basis. Necessary accommodations are also made for anyone off-island to successfully learn the concepts online.
Despite the success Tao is having, he acknowledges that students are facing new challenges learning in an off-campus environment. Before he uploads any lectures, he creates multiple formats of a lecture and then puts on his student hat to ask, “would [this] be understandable from a student’s perspective?” to find the most suitable option.
The biologist, whose research focuses on cell division mechanisms, an integral component of cancer research, draws on his career in academia in formulating his approach to online teaching. He received his doctor of philosophy in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California at Davis after coming to the United States in 2001. Before joining the UH Hilo campus in 2014, he conducted postdoctoral research at UC Davis and worked as a project scientist at UC Santa Cruz. He was promoted to associate professor last year and continues to deliver his sought-after biology courses, adapting well to the new needs of his students.
“Since everything is online, students can get easily distracted, compared to an in-person class,” he notices. To complement the intricacies and complex details of cell biology course material, he draws on current events to engage students in his lectures, striving to meet students where they are. “One of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to sum things up using simple analogies and making them easier to remember.”
This semester, which Tao had originally intended to take as a sabbatical to conduct collaborative research and apply for grants, has brought its biggest challenge in the form of finding balance.
“It’s been quite busy and challenging as I have to teach and perform my own research at the same time. I have to juggle between mentoring students and postdocs, performing collaborative research with other professors, applying for grants, and of course teaching my classes,” he says.
Despite this, Tao has continued to put students first. To combat the new stress he has seen spike in students, he strives to always “put the student’s wellbeing as my top priority and make sure to give out clear instructions and expectations, assuring them that they will succeed in my classes under my guidance and mentoring.”
One way of accomplishing this has been his personal rule of responding to student requests by initiating communication, usually via a Zoom call, within 30 minutes. “I always try to look from their angle in order to understand their situation.”
Tao understands that everyone is in this pandemic together and that interdependence at the university makes the campus community stronger. He says playing important roles creating this supportive environment are the college dean, department chair, the university disability center, and the university’s CARES program (a federal program—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—established in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States).
Tao notes this multi-pronged support system is put in place “to make sure that any student with special needs can get immediate attention.”
“I treat the students like family and each time they make progress, I feel like a proud parent,” he says.
Though Tao is juggling many commitments this semester, his exemplary leadership has earned him recognition from his students because of his genuine concern and care for their development as biologists and as people.
Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.
The researchers credit collaboration between the university, the federal forest service, the county, and an independent lawyer with the success of Bill 178, meant to create two additional native forest dedications, including a tax incentive for property owners in Hawai‘i county.
Research at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo on hybrid forest ecosystems is directly behind the creation of a bill currently under consideration at the Hawai‘i County Council. Bill 178 is an amendment to the current Hawaiʻi County Property Tax Code. Under the proposed property tax amendments, Bill 178 would create two additional native forest dedications: 1) a functional forest and 2) a successional forest land-use dedication. These changes would allow private landowners to receive reduced property tax rates for native forest restoration on Hawaiʻi Island, and promote the islandwide engagement of preserving native forests.
The bill has passed two hearings unanimously with the next scheduled for Aug. 5. If it passes the next hearing and is approved by Mayor Harry Kim, it will become law.
Update: At the Aug. 5 hearing, the Hawai‘i County Council unanimously approved the bill. It now goes to mayor for signature.
Update: The mayor signed the bill into law on Aug. 17, 2020.
In addition, UH Hilo student Sebastian Wells, in the professional internship track of the TCBES graduate program and advised by internship coordinator Lisa Canale, is working as an intern this summer with the County of Hawaiʻi Real Property Tax Office under the guidance of Lisa Miura, division head administrator at the tax office. Among his many duties, Wells is developing communication tools for the public and training county employees in evaluating forest management plans.
“My role as an intern is to develop documents that would support the implementation of the proposed legislation as it will help streamline the process for the county, helping them to effectively and efficiently evaluate forestry management plans while also providing landowners with the tools they need in order to maximize the success of their native forest restoration endeavors,” Wells says.
Ostertag explains that about two years ago, she and Cordell were contacted by the County of Hawai‘i to give a presentation to a working group convened to analyze the current property tax programs related to agriculture and to propose suggestions to the county council for change. A subset of the agricultural programs is a Native Forest Program that is intended to promote open space and the persistence of native plants.
“We did our presentation in October 2018,” says Ostertag. “We talked about our research on the Liko Nā Pilina project, which is developing a new restoration technique using native and non-native, non-invasive species in combination to keep out the highly invasive plants.”
In May 2019, the two forest advocates were contacted by environmental lawyer Cole-Brooks, who heard about Ostertag and Cordell’s research through a member of the county council. Discussions took place about rewriting the county code to allow for a cheaper tax rate, an incentive, for doing restoration and to add this incentive to the native forest dedication already on the books, in which there was no direct credit for restoration.
“We added categories for doing native forest restoration, functional forest restoration—an outgrowth of our years working in Liko Nā Pilina—and successional forest restoration,” explains Ostertag. “We spent a whole year developing this and Leslie did the legwork of writing the code and doing outreach to a lot of people.”
Ostertag then recruited graduate student Wells to work on the project. Among other work, Wells is helping the tax office with communicating about the program to the public, making species lists, developing guidelines for the forest management plans that owners need to write and how the county can evaluate the plans.
Collaboration and Applied Learning
Ostertag credits the collaboration between the university, the U. S. Forest Service, the county, and the independent lawyer with the success of the bill.
“It’s super exciting that the bill is based on years of research, and how that basic research expanded and blossomed into policy and training applications.”
That training can be seen most clearly in the work of graduate student Wells. Among his many duties in regard to Bill 178, he is working on the following:
Creating digital habitat suitability maps with a Geographic Information System (GIS) that will show the ranges and types of native plants that can be used for forest restoration efforts throughout Hawaiʻi county
A corresponding list of native and non-native non-invasive plant species that can be used to maximize the success of native forest restoration projects based on elevation and rates of precipitation
Developing an evaluation criterion that the county can use to track private landowners progress
The development of guidelines for forestry and natural resource management professionals to use to write native forest assessment reports and whether landowners are adhering to the guidelines for native forest dedication
Quantifying the economic value of native forests based on the ecosystem services they provide the residents of Hawaiʻi county
Upon completion, train staff at the Hawaiʻi County Real Property Tax Division how to use these documents
“So far I have completed the plant species list and the annotated bibliography quantifying the economic value of native forests and am now starting to work on forestry management plans that will be used by the county and the property owners who are interested in dedicating their land to one of three native forest dedications outlined in Bill 178,” Wells explains. “I have also submitted verbal and written testimony in support of Bill 178 during the last two hearings on July 7th and July 22nd, and I also plan on submitting another round of verbal and written testimony during the last hearing on August 5th.”
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.
Update Sept. 8, 2020: Interview with ThinkTech Hawaii, featuring Leslie Cole Brooks, Rebecca Ostertag, and Susan Cordell. Host is Jay Fidell.
The work by Matthew Knope and research colleagues argues that animals have not only evolved increased resiliency to environmental change, but have also made the physical environment increasingly more stable.
A review article by University of Hawai‘i at Hilo evolutionary ecologist Matthew Knope, and a collaborative research team from several universities, was published June 12, 2020, at The Royal Society’s Interface Focus. The article, “The evolution of complex life and the stabilization of the Earth system,” is the product of an invited paper presented to The Royal Society, delivered by team member Jonathan Payne, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at Stanford University, CA, on behalf of the group.
The work focuses on the evolution of complex life, and posits that animals have not only evolved increased resiliency to environmental change, but have also made the physical environment increasingly more stable, helping to explain the well-documented decrease in background extinction rates in the animal fossil record over the past 500 million years.
“Scientists have long been interested in better understanding the feedbacks between the living and non-living components of Earth across time,” says Knope. “Based on evidence from paleontology, geochemistry, and comparative physiology, we argue that the evolution of complex life, on the whole, has actually decreased volatility in the climate system, and increased the habitability of the planet for animals, including ourselves.”
The half-billion-year history of animal evolution is characterized by decreasing rates of background extinction. Earth’s increasing habitability for animals could result from several processes: (i) a decrease in the intensity of interactions among species that lead to extinctions; (ii) a decrease in the prevalence or intensity of geological triggers such as flood basalt eruptions and bolide impacts; (iii) a decrease in the sensitivity of animals to environmental disturbance; or (iv) an increase in the strength of stabilizing feedbacks within the climate system and biogeochemical cycles.
There is no evidence that the prevalence or intensity of interactions among species or geological extinction triggers have decreased over time. There is, however, evidence from palaeontology, geochemistry and comparative physiology that animals have become more resilient to an environmental change and that the evolution of complex life has, on the whole, strengthened stabilizing feedbacks in the climate system.
The differential success of certain phyla and classes appears to result, at least in part, from the anatomical solutions to the evolution of macroscopic size that were arrived at largely during Ediacaran and Cambrian time. Larger-bodied animals, enabled by increased anatomical complexity, were increasingly able to mix the marine sediment and water columns, thus promoting stability in biogeochemical cycles.
In addition, body plans that also facilitated ecological differentiation have tended to be associated with lower rates of extinction. In this sense, Cambrian solutions to Cambrian problems have had a lasting impact on the trajectory of complex life and, in turn, fundamental properties of the Earth system.
Knope’s research on evolution and extinction rates is making a big impact on the field. Notably, in 2016, was the publication of his collaborative work on the emerging biodiversity crisis in the world’s oceans in the journal Science. By comparing modern extinction risk data with information on ancient extinctions, Knope and his colleagues determined the potential for future human-driven mass extinction could rival the largest mass extinctions in the past, and that the current biodiversity crisis is unlike any the planet has ever experienced.
Recently, a collaborative study led by Knope and published Feb. 28, 2020, also in the journal Science, uncovers findings that challenge long-held assumptions in the field of evolution, positing that animal biodiversity in modern oceans is best explained by lower extinction rates in animal groups that are ecologically diverse, rather than by higher origination rates as previously predicted.
Saturday, March 7th was a “beautiful day in the neighborhood”, with Lisa Mason filling minds and creating smiles.
A parent wrote, “Yesterday’s Bird Day was fabulous. My daughter really enjoyed it and got to learn some great things about Hawaii’s birds.” Expert help included: Ann Tanimoto, Timon, Carmelita Villalobos, and Kristina Paxton from the UHH graduate program of Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science.
Thank you Lisa Mason for designing and creating such an active learning environment. Thank you Tennville and Shannon for your logistical support. Moms and Dads, Melissa, Brian and Jolene Sutton who jumped in to help. Mahalo!
If you are interested in Aeronautical Science at UHH on Saturday, March 21, contact Gail at 430-5898 for more information.
The study was a collaboration of state agencies along with UH Hilo faculty and alumni now working in health and science fields.
Findings: Staph and fecal indicator bacteria in Hilo Bay increase with rainfall and river discharge. Cloudy water is associated with higher bacteria concentrations, and high salinity with lower bacteria concentrations.
A team of scientists from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has published a paper in the prestigious Journal of Environmental Quality on how rainfall-driven runoff increases concentrations of harmful bacteria in Hilo Bay.
The paper is titled, “Rainfall and Streamflow Effects on Estuarine Staphylococcus aureus and Fecal Indicator Bacteria Concentrations.” The authors are Louise Economy, an alumna of UH Hilo’s tropical conservation and environment science graduate program who is currently employed by the Hawai‘i Department of Health; Tracy Wiegner, professor of marine science at UH Hilo; Ayron Strauch, a hydrologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources; Jonathan Awaya, professor of biology at UH Hilo; and Tyler Gerken, a UH Hilo alumnus who is currently a graduate research assistant at the University of Washington.
The scientists used culture-based methods to quantify the presence of Staphylococcus aureus (known informally as “staph”), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (abbreviated MRSA), and fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) in Hilo Bay and in soils, sands, rivers, wastewater, and storm water within the Hilo watershed. These pathogen concentrations were then compared with rainfall and river discharge levels and water quality data. The results showed that staph and FIB concentrations increased with rainfall and river discharge. In terms of water quality, high turbidity (water cloudiness) was associated with higher bacteria concentrations, and high salinity with lower bacteria concentrations.
The project is based on Economy’s undergraduate and graduate work at UH Hilo, supervised by Wiegner, as well as work done by Gerken, also supervised by Wiegner, while he was at UH Hilo earning his baccalaureate degree in environmental science.
“Staph is an opportunistic pathogenic bacterium, meaning that given the right conditions it can cause disease,” explains Economy. “It can invade wounds and cause boils, rashes, and even flesh-eating disease. These infections are becoming more and more common in the community and affecting people who were previously healthy.”
Wiegner notes that Hawai‘i has the highest level of community acquired staph infections in the country. “It’s two times the rate of the rest of the U.S.,” she says. “That may be because it’s warmer here or because people are in the water more.”
Traditionally, scientists focused on the transmission of bacterial pathogens to the water from the skin of recreational water users. “Two out of five people have staph on their skin at any given time,” explains Economy. “These people can be carriers without getting infected. However, our work showed that staph and MRSA can persist on land, and can be moved into our ocean waters through mauka to makai connections driven by rainfall.”
The scientists hope their work can be used to predict water quality conditions based on rainfall patterns and to help assess the health risks faced by swimmers, surfers, and other recreational water users in Hilo Bay. “We are trying to develop real-time models using the water quality buoys, river discharge gauges, and rainfall data to be able to make real time predictions,” says Wiegner. “The idea is that you could look at your phone and see what your risk is before going in the water.”
Until then, she advises swimmers and surfers to stay home after a heavy rainfall, since rainfall and turbidity are associated with higher pathogen concentrations. “A good rule of thumb for recreational water users is if the water is brown, turn around,” she says. “You don’t want to go in with open cuts, and if you do go in, you should always rinse off.”
Wiegner worries that climate change could make the potential risk higher. “What’s predicted by climate change is that the climate will be drier, but when we do have rain, it will be much more intense,” she says. “When you have dry periods followed by more intense rain events, you get higher pathogen concentrations.”
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.
Narrissa Spies, an alumna from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is the inspiration behind artwork created by Laurie Sumiya for the 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.
Meet the muse for the #2019SACNAS artwork: SACNISTA Narrissa Spies!Aside from seeing her depicted in this year’s art, Narrissa is also a graduate student in #zoology@UHNews.
About the Artwork
“‘Ano Lani; ‘Ano-Honua” by Laurie Sumiye.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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).
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.
The gift from Hawaii Forest & Trail will support research and technologies to reduce mosquito populations that spread avian disease in Hawai‘i.
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.
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.”