Students present their research at symposium hosted by UH Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology & Environmental Science graduate program

The theme, “Emerging techniques for research and conservation in a changing planet,” was reflected in many of the presentations, notably harnessing cutting-edge science and technology for the benefit of ecosystems under stress from climate change and other anthropogenic threats. Keynotes: Paula Ayotte and John Burns.

By Leah Sherwood. Symposium photos by Raiatea Arcuri.
Click photos to enlarge.

Alex Bischer at podium, slide up on the screen, with room full of people seated and listening.
Alex Bischer presents his research at the 11th annual Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Research Symposium, April, 12, 2019, UH Hilo. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Logo with graphic design of bird, turtle, taro, lehua. Words: 11th Annual Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Research Symposium, April 11th & 12th, 2019. Brown on white background.University of Hawai‘i at Hilo hosted the annual Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) Research Symposium on April 11 and 12 at the Campus Center. The event has been organized annually for the past 11 years by the TCBES club, which is made up of graduate students in the program.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Emerging techniques for research and conservation in a changing planet,” was reflected in many of the research presentations, which highlighted the importance of harnessing cutting-edge science and technology for the benefit of ecosystems that are under stress from climate change and other anthropogenic threats. The symposium featured graduate and undergraduate research on a wide variety of environmental topics spanning marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

A panel of judges awarded prizes for the best presentations. Winners:

  • Best 5 minute talk: Nicolas Vanderzyl, UH Hilo Undergraduate Student, “Microplastic Accumulation Patterns of a Newly Formed Beach,” mentor Associate Professor of Marine Science Steve Colbert.
  • Best 15 minute talk (Undergraduate): Tyler Gerken, UH Hilo Undergraduate Student, “Soil Sources of Staphylococcus aureus and Fecal Indicator Bacteria in the Hilo Bay Watershed,” mentor Professor of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner.
  • Best 15 minute talk (Graduate): Karen Gallardo, UH Hilo TCBES Graduate Student, “Examining the Effect of Helicopter Noise on Bird Assemblages in Hawaiʻi’s Protected Natural Areas,” mentor Professor of Biology Patrick Hart.
  • Best poster: Kayla Caliboso, Leeward Community College Undergraduate Student, “Cecal Microbiome Profile of Hawaiian Feral Chickens and Pastured Commercial Chickens,” mentor Helmut Kae.
  • Honorable mention (poster): Duke Escobar and Keinan Agonias, UH Hilo Undergraduate Students, “An Update on the Survey of Antibacterial Efficacy of Native Hawaiian plant extracts: Focus on ‘Ohia Lehua and Gram-positive Bacteria,” mentor Assistant Professor of Biology Stan Nakanishi.
  • Honorable mention (poster): Michael Morrissey and Misa Webber, UH Hilo Undergraduate Students, “Modification of Body Regeneration Using Hawaiian Plant Extracts in Planaria,” mentor Stan Nakanishi.
  • Honorable mention (poster): Valeria Alicea-Colon, Leeward Community College Undergraduate Student, “Expression of Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone Receptor,” mentor Helmut Kae.

See the Symposium Program for the complete list of student presentations. Sampling of students doing presentations:

Jazmine Panelo on mic near the podium. Slide on screen with title: Greater variability in salinity at Pauoa.
Jazmine Panelo

To learn more about all student participants’ presentations, see the symosium abstracts.

The conference featured two keynote speakers: Paula Ayotte, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on April 11, and John Burns, a coral biologist and assistant professor of marine science at UH Hilo, on April 12. Ayotte described her adventures as a coral reef science diver for NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and Burns inspired the audience with a highly personal talk entitled, “The best advice you never asked for.” Burns is an alumnus of the TCBES program.

“The TCBES symposium provides an excellent platform for UH Hilo undergraduate and graduate students to showcase their research activities,” says Burns. “Our students work across a dynamic range of environmental systems and perform some truly incredible work, and this symposium plays a key role in allowing them to share their findings to broader audiences.”

The event kicked off at 8:30 a.m. on April 11 with a kīpaepae welcoming ceremony performed by faulty and students of the Hawaiʻi Papa O Ke Ao program, followed by opening remarks by Rebecca Ostertag, professor of biology and chair of the TCBES program.

Ostertag stresses the important role played by the TCBES program in promoting research in marine and terrestrial environments that will enable participants to pursue careers in science and natural resource management.

“Now more than ever we need science to inform the decisions we make about conserving biodiversity, and the management of natural resources,” says Ostertag. “And we need social science to understand how humans make decisions that affect the wellbeing of our planet. We need to understand the human-environment interactions. We have something here that is truly special and unique, a spirit of aloha and collaboration that we see so clearly in this audience—with UH Hilo students and faculty and our partners from non-profits, state and federal agencies—there’s a sense that we can and will work together.”

Auction & Sponsors

A silent auction was held during the two-day conference to raise money for next year’s research symposium as well as other TCBES student-organized events, such as the Women in Stem Conference organized by the club earlier this year. Silent auction items included UFO Parasail rides, a Volcano Winery tour, and other prizes and gifts cards from local retailers such as Basically Books, Big Island Candies, Starbucks, Cafe Pesto, Seaside Restaurant, and Walmart.

Funding for the symposium was provided by the UH Hilo Student Activity Council, UH Hilo Student Association, TCBES MATERs Club, Terrilani Chong, KTA and Hawaiian Electric. Catering was provided by KTA, Ocean Sushi, and Starbucks.


About the author of this story: Leah Sherwood is a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

About the photographer: Raiatea Arcuri is a professional photographer majoring in business at UH Hilo. Visit his website at