Climate change research at UH Hilo: Near shore water quality

The researchers are investigating climate driven shifts in Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA—a type of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to many antibiotics—for water resource and land management solutions.

By Anne Rivera.

Louise Economy on a boat with ocean and island in background.
Louise Economy, Hilo Bay. Courtesy photo.

This story is the fifth and final of a series on climate change research at UH Hilo.

Community outreach and sharing information with the public and government agencies is the ultimate goal of climate research at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Graduate student Louise Economy, with the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program, along with faculty advisor and Professor of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner, have taken on a project over the last year that focuses on pathogens in coastal waters such as staph (Staphylococcus aureus) and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus) that increase the risk of infection to beach goers. MRSA is the most common form of staph infection in the world.

The project is entitled “Investigating climate driven shifts in Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA for water resource and land management solutions.” Partners in the project are Ayron Strauch, a hydrologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and Chad Shibuya, a registered nurse at Hilo Medical Center. Funding for the research is from the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center at UH Hilo.  The center is a partnership between U.S. Geological Survey and a university consortium that includes UH Mānoa (the consortium lead) and University of Guam, in addition to UH Hilo.

Economy is not only focusing on creating a better understanding of the pathogens in the ocean environment and then communicating that information to the public, but also is developing a predictive model of staph and MRSA with rainfall. The predictive model will be able to assess the risk of staph and MRSA with changing climate patterns.

Mikala Jones, UH Hilo undergraduate, and Jazmine Panelo, a recent UH Hilo graduate and current research technician, are providing support on Economy’s project as well as conducting their own projects.

While Economy is concentrating on climate change and working with different governmental departments to develop the predictive model that would inform water users of the health risks under different weather conditions, Jones’s project is more about public perception and opinion of staph and MRSA,  She conducted an epidemiological study on Staph and MRSA in water-user communities, focusing on four major beach areas that include Honoli’i, Hilo Bay Front, Richardson’s, and Puhi Bay. She analyzed how the infections have affected the lives of community members and whether or not they feel it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Producing outreach material for the public about staph and MRSA is on the agenda for the research team.

The research team

Economy was born in California but moved to Hilo when she was eight. She attended UH Hilo’s marine science and biology programs for her undergraduate studies and is currently expected to graduate from the TCBES program this December. The water quality project idea developed when she was working with on her senior thesis for her bachelor of science—with Wiegner as her senior thesis advisor—and is carrying on the research into her graduate program.

Wiegner, who’s been at UH Hilo for 14 years, has expertise in water quality and focuses on nutrients in organic matter. She received her doctor of philosophy in oceanography from Rutgers. In the last eight years her focus has shifted to microbial water quality. She says her favorite part about her job is being an advisor.

“I really enjoy working with students one on one, not just teaching them the skills but becoming collaborators and strategizing how to get the information we’re looking for,” she says. “My greatest joy is seeing them go on to be successful.”

Jones is a senior at UH Hilo originally from Seattle, WA, and is a candidate to graduate this month.

Helping communities understand health risks

Economy and Jones’s research projects are community oriented. The final goal is to use the scientific data they collect to better educate the public in regard to health risks associated with water use. This information will allow the public to make educated decisions about what health risks they are comfortable taking when going into the water.

Wiegner says to accomplish this, first the researchers need to understand the environmental pattern of the pathogens, focusing on near shore water where people do recreational activities. Then the public needs to be educated about the risks.

Jones says she expected more pushback from the community when conducting her interviews and surveys because “most people associate pathogen and risk with limitation, avoidance or restriction, but that was not the most immediate feedback.”

To Jones’s surprise, the community members were happy to talk about it, learn, and gain more information. Overall, there was positive feedback from the community.

Training scientists for the future

Economy says the education she gained in the marine science undergraduate program’s “hands-on” curriculum has helped her in the graduate program.

“It is a challenge working with different people to explain research and collaborate with them in a way that benefits all parties,” she explains. “It is interesting and transdisciplinary, which helps me to make my research more applicable to more people.”

Wiegner admits there are certain aspects of science that simply cannot be learned in a classroom.

“Being able to train students to think critically, troubleshoot, plan and manage projects, lead groups, and become professionals where they can publish reports and manuscripts and give public presentations to lots of different types of audiences is the goal,” she says.

She explains that student success in whatever aspect of science they want to get into is most important.

“We train students to come up with ideas, propose questions, develop a project to answer those questions, execute that project and then share the results with the public and other scientists,” she says. “(That) is how we do science.”

Jones says being able to take what she learned in her textbook and classrooms and dive into a problem that affects people living here in the community has been an awesome experience.

Economy says being prepared for the expected and unexpected along with always having to think creatively to reach solutions has been one of the most valuable skills she has taken away from this research project.

The future

Working with faculty advisors help students at UH Hilo apply their classroom learning to the professional world, preparing them for their future careers. Leadership and communication skills are further developed through these projects.

After graduation, Economy is hoping to get a job with the Hawai‘i Department of Health, another government agency, or a nonprofit devoted to water shed conservation.

Jones is planning on pursuing her doctorate next fall and hoping to work as a research technician during her transition from undergraduate to graduate studies.


About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (junior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories


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