Alumna returns to UH Hilo to share her inspirational life story and research on marine mammals

The Department of Marine Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo presents a talk by alumna Louisa Ponnampalam, PhD, on Monday, Nov. 17 at 1:00 p.m. in the Marine Science Building, Room 101. The event is free and open to the public.

By Susan Enright.

UH Hilo alumna Louisa Ponnampalam, PhD, gives an inspirational talk on “Whales, Dolphins, and What They are Saying,” at TEDxYouth in her homeland of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In 2003, Louisa Ponnampalam finished her undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, graduating with a bachelor of arts in marine science and a minor in conservation biology. It was the springboard for her to go on to accomplish great things in the field of marine science conservation. In 2004, she was awarded a prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship to earn her doctor of philosophy from the University Marine Biological Station in Millport, Scotland. Her doctoral work focused on the ecology and conservation of small cetaceans in the Sultanate of Oman. After graduating, she returned to her homeland of Malaysia as a cetacean ecologist on a mission.

Her research work on cetaceans has taken her to the Bering Sea, across the North Pacific Ocean, the Red Sea, South China Sea, Sulu-Sulawesi Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, and more recently, the northern Straits of Malacca, southern Andaman Sea. She loves this work, but her true passion lies in increasing the scientific knowledge of marine mammals in her homeland of Malaysia. To advocate for a greater awareness on marine mammal conservation among the Malaysian public, she has started her own nonprofit, The MareCet Research Organization, the country’s first nonprofit dedicated solely to the research, conservation, and increasing public awareness of marine mammals.

Louisa Ponnampalam with ocean in background.
Louisa Ponnampalam

“My main work these days is on the ecology and conservation of coastal cetaceans and dugongs in Peninsular Malaysia,” she says.  The dugong is a large marine mammal listed as vulnerable by the International Union of Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. “I also have my own NGO, which is committed to marine conservation. We translate our research work for dissemination to a wider crowd beyond the scientific community and to raise awareness about marine mammals and conservation. Many Malaysians are not aware that there are marine mammals in their own country’s seas, and that’s one of the things I am working towards fixing.”

Ponnampalam measuring skull in lab. Pen and paper in foreground.
Ponnampalam measures a dugong skull. From Malaysia Travel Blog

Ponnampalam began examining dugongs in 2009 as a postdoctoral research fellow and helped initiate national discussions to establish a response network for marine mammal strandings. In 2010, she started the Langkawi Dolphin Research Project, which studies population groups of Indo-Pacific finless porpoises and humpback dolphins, largely undocumented in the scientific literature at the time.

She also serves as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean and Sirenian Specialist Groups and is the current vice chair of the International Consortium for Marine Conservation. Through MareCet and the University of Malaya, her research projects are collecting detailed ecological data on coastal marine mammals in Peninsular Malaysia. These projects give the general public, especially aspiring marine scientists, the chance to gain hands-on experience through participation in volunteer field research.

Louisa Ponnampalam on stage with several other people as she receives her award.
Louisa Ponnampalam receives the 2014 National Youth Premier Award from the Honourable Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak. From the University of Malaya at Click to enlarge.

Recently, she became the first Malaysian to receive the prestigious PEW Fellowship in Marine Conservation. Ponnampalam’s professional achievements were also recognized by Malaysia’s Prime Minister, who presented her with the 2014 National Youth Premier Award.

Sharing her knowledge and experience with students at UH Hilo

Ponnampalam says she is incredibly humbled and even more excited to return to UH Hilo to speak to students and faculty. “UH Hilo is where it all began for me, and (to) this day and forever, I regard my marine science education at UH Hilo ever so highly, because it laid the great foundation for me on my journey towards a career in marine science and conservation.”

This Monday, she will be sharing her inspirational life story and her research with the Marine Option Program seminar class, which is designed for first and second year students to learn about science and conservation. Her talk will cover dugongs, their conservation needs, and the latest efforts to improve protections for the species and their sea grass habitats.

“Students do not have a good idea of what happens after graduation,” says Steve Colbert, assistant professor of marine science at UH Hilo. “These presentations allows students to see what kind of jobs UH Hilo graduates are doing and gives students the opportunity to network with folks that have been successful. Much of the class is locally focused, (but) having an alumna from Asia coming back to the class will demonstrate that what they are learning here in Hawai‘i can (also) be applied elsewhere.”

Colbert hopes students see a bit of themselves in Louisa Ponnampalam, cetacean ecologist. “As UH Hilo students, they immediately have that connection. For students from outside the U.S. — from Asia, Pacific Islands — the connection may be a little stronger. By hearing her talk, students will have the opportunity to learn about the path she took after graduation. Then they will be energized to push through to graduation and become leaders in their chosen field.”

Colbert says her return also is important for the faculty to see their far reaching impact, and how the training they provide has been used to do something wonderful in marine mammal conservation.

Colbert says conservation efforts are underway in many countries to protect threatened marine mammals, including Hawaiʻi, and that successful conservation requires everyone working together towards a common goal of protecting a natural resource, be it a specific creature or an ecosystem. The challenge in Malaysia starts at a very basic level: too many people are not aware that there are marine mammals in their own seas. “Louisa is working not only to understand the ecology of coastal cetaceans and dugongs, but also to educate the people about these mammals. Through these efforts, there may be hope for mammal conservation in Malaysia.”

He says this type of work is relevant to budding marine scientists because marine mammal conservation is a difficult issue in Hawai’i, too, particularly regarding the Hawaiian monk seal. Scientifically, he says, the tenuous survival of monk seals is obvious, but successful conservation ultimately requires the support of the broader public.


Louisa Ponnampalam will give her presentation on Monday, Nov. 17 at 1:00 p.m. in the Marine Science Building, Room 101. For more information about the talk, contact Steve Colbert.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is 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.