UH Hilo marine scientists train junior scientists in waters of the Marshall Islands

  • Ten Marshallese students were trained over the summer in scientific methods of collecting data on water quality, algae cover, and reef composition.
  • The students did the research themselves, in the Marshall Islands, and the knowledge and skills each budding scientist gained will be of great benefit to the communities and environment of their homeland.

By Leah Sherwood.

Three divers survey reef.
Three students in the Marshall Islands Nearshore Training (MINT) program recover a transect line after measuring coral and algae cover and collecting water samples. Photo by Alexandra Runyan.

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo undergraduate Sabrina Bejang did not think she would ever choose marine biology for a career. Bejang, like many young Marshallese women, grew up wary of the ocean and knew little of the coral reef systems that make up Majuro atoll, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Then she took an introductory marine science course as a student at the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) that changed the trajectory of her future.

“I didn’t know anything about the ocean. I didn’t want to snorkel on lab days. I didn’t know how to use the flippers. I was not a good swimmer. The ocean was in my backyard but I never got out,” explains Bejang. “My teacher saw I was scared, and told me she would hold my hand and swim out with me. Once I swam out deeper I saw the coral and fish and was like ‘Woah!’ It is a whole new world out there.”

Bejang is now a junior at UH Hilo majoring in marine science. This past summer, she, and recent UH Hilo graduate Gordon LeBehn (a fellow marine science major) were selected to participate in an eight-week “bootcamp” for budding Marshallese marine scientists. Through the Marshall Islands Nearshore Training (MINT) program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the two UH Hilo students joined eight students from the College of the Marshall Islands and traveled throughout Majuro and Arno Atoll collecting data on water quality, algae cover, and reef composition.

Bejang, now fully confident in her swimming and snorkeling skills, along with LeBehn and their MINT cohort, became proficient at field research methods and identification of the different types of corals and algae surrounding their islands—the knowledge and skills each budding scientist gained will be of great benefit to their communities and environment in the Marshall Islands.

A team of three UH Hilo marine scientists flew to the atoll nation to lead the place-based learning program: Steve Colbert, chair and associate professor of the marine science department; Karla McDermid, professor of marine science; and marine science/biology undergraduate student Alexandra Runyan, who served as a teaching assistant in the program. Runyan is a divemaster and instructed the students in benthic surveying (deepest depths) and photographing of the atoll’s coral reef system.

Place-based training

Colbert explains the necessity for placed-based scientific training. “They live on atolls and they rely heavily on their marine resources. There’s a lot of programs going on there to understand their marine resources, but there are not local people trained to take those positions. Now you have these ten students who were trained in these methods and have done research themselves in the Marshall Islands.”

Group photo of students and faculty.
Students from UH Hilo and the College of the Marshall Islands with their professors and mentors, Majuro, Marshall Islands. From left, front row, Diana Melville, marine science faculty, College of Marshall Islands (CMI), and her daughter Johanna; Alexandra Runyan, teaching assistant, UH Hilo; Nathan Loeak, CMI graduate; Langinard Jitiam, CMI; Sabrina Bejang, UH Hilo; Karla McDermid, marine science faculty, UH Hilo; Jerwan Lalimo, CMI; and Richard Mack, CMI. Back row, Ambros Loeak, CMI; Gordon Lebehn, UH Hilo graduate; Jimmy Abija, CMI; Max Sudnovsky, Marshall Island’s UH Sea Grant College Program office; Steven Colbert, marine science faculty, UH Hilo; and David Aiseia, CMI. Missing is Juddson Nelson, conservation program officer at the Marshall Islands Conservation Society. Photo by Madeline Cochran.

McDermid, an expert in phycology (the study of algae), was in the Marshall Islands for seven days to lead the training on identifying the algal species and quantifying them by weight or percent cover.

“A lot of people from the Marshallese government and NGO conservation community were excited about the MINT program and were asking us if we had any students that could go join them for upcoming research cruises,” says McDermid. “These students already have the skills. They learned how to use the Coral Point Count software package for analyzing coral reefs and carry out field research to assess coral cover, algal growth, and nutrients in the water. This experience gives these ten students a jumpstart in terms of career opportunities. It is also a recruitment tool because two students expressed interest in coming to UH Hilo.”

An aeiral view of atoll, a ring shaped island surrounding a lagoon.
Aerial view of Majuro Atoll. Satellite image from NASA.
Sliver of atoll, beach on one side, reef offshore.
A section of Majuro Atoll. Photo credit: Erin Magee.

The Marshall Islands are a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, between Hawai‘i and the Philippines. An atoll, which is a ring-shaped reef surrounding a lagoon, is formed by coral growing upward around a volcanic island that is below sea level. Over the past 10+ years, local organizations and agencies have been hard at work documenting algae and coral cover in Majuro and Arno atolls, notably through The Reimaanlok Framework (PDF), a community-based conservation planning process launched in 2007. The MINT program greatly complemented these efforts.

“The project was focused on algae and the different types of seaweeds growing around the atolls,” says Colbert. “We chose to focus on algae because that is what the community was interested in learning about.” His students collected nutrient samples from both high and low population areas.

Students worked in groups to put their newly acquired field skills and theoretical knowledge into practice.

“The students used a transect and collected all the seaweeds from a small 10 cm by 10 cm part of the quadrat,” says McDermid. “We dried and weighed to extrapolate its actual weight. They also compared a site’s percent cover and biomass.” On lab days the students would process the vouchers, drying them out by pressing them onto herbarium paper between layers of the local newspaper.

Becoming the experts

At the end of the course, the students produced a written report with their findings and gave a formal presentation attended by local conservation and state organizations and CMI’s president. Bejang says that even though the whole experience was challenging, the symposium stood out to her.

“The people we presented to did not realize that we were being funded by NSF and working with UH Hilo,” she says. “We were the first ones to have our own research project and to learn the scientific names for algae, so we became experts on the island for algae.”

Group of students in a lab examining seaweed samples on a try.
Students analyze algae samples collected from Majuro lagoon with the help of UH Hilo undergraduate and teaching assistant Alexa Runyan. Photo courtesy of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society.

According to McDermid, the overall experience was something that amounted to a full semester squeezed into eight weeks, creating a special camaraderie among the participants.

“We went from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. with a lunch break or ate in the field, working as a team. MINT captured teaching at its essence, and it was experimental teaching in its truest form,” says McDermid. “Students can focus on one thing at a time and have a chance to build relationships with students and faculty from UH Hilo.” She says that it gave her and Colbert time to bond professionally and to brainstorm future ways to make more programs like this possible.

“To build a bridge going both ways for UH Hilo students would be a wonderful opportunity,” she says. “We are sitting here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and can do things for our students, as well as other students across the Pacific, that other universities cannot do. We could have nifty field opportunities that nowhere else really can. If we continue to build these ties, it is easier to give our students a life-changing experience.”

Undergraduate training partnership

This collaborative MINT program was funded through a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant, “Pacific Island Reefs Under Siege–An Undergraduate Training Partnership” (NSF #1748616).

From the abstract:

The coral reefs of the Marshall Islands, some of the most pristine in the world, are endangered by algal blooms caused by contamination from human sewage and a rise in seawater temperature triggered by the last El Nino. These environmental hazards threaten the wellbeing of the Marshallese people and the health of the coral reefs. Scientists from the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the College of the Marshall Islands will map and analyze the algal blooms and establish a new system to monitor seawater temperature and its effect on coral reef bleaching. During the project, students and faculty from the College of the Marshall Islands will be trained in current methods for environmental science. This enhanced local expertise will mitigate the urgent need for ongoing monitoring of reef health.

[…] The project will also have a sustained impact on building research capacity through the collaboration of faculty from the University of Hawaii and the College of the Marshall Islands. Collectively the faculty will provide STEM training for eight students from the College of the Marshall Islands. Increasing the local expertise through student training will be critical for resilience on the Marshall Islands, one of the Pacific Island groups at the forefront of environmental change.

Rebecca Ostertag
Rebecca Ostertag

The grant was secured by UH Hilo principal investigators Rebecca Ostertag, a biology professor and associate program chair of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, and Sharon Ziegler-Chong, director of research and community partnerships, a unit leader of the Hawaiʻi Cooperative Studies Unit, and director of the award-winning Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES).

The funding came about from a phone call to Ostertag from Amanda Simcox. At the time, Simcox was a NSF program officer who told Ostertag about the grant opportunity. “She called and asked me if I wanted to be the [principal investigator] and take the lead on a grant that the NSF is potentially funding.”

Ziegler-Chong was a natural fit to be the grant’s co-PI given her longstanding relationships across the Pacific and expertise in building university-community partnerships; she has done previous work in the Marshall Islands and past and present work with the US Geological Survey Climate Adaptation Science Center located at UH Hilo and UH Mānoa. She notes the MINT program in the Marshall Islands came about because of previous successful programs in PIPES. “[This] is a case of taking one success and growing it into another. We were able to pull together partnerships to make this happen and are so glad that the marine science folks were willing to step in to participate,” she says.  

Sharon Ziegler-Chong
Sharon Ziegler-Chong

One typical way these types of grants are organized is by following the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) model, which originate with NSF and REU programs throughout the country (UH Hilo’s REU has always been one of the PIPES programs). However, Ostertag and Ziegler-Chong wanted to try a place-based learning approach that turned the traditional REU model on its head, bringing the faculty to the students.

“An REU program usually takes the undergraduates and brings them to the university to do their work there,” explains Colbert, who directed the water quality training for the MINT summer program. “This project was flipping that idea over. Instead of bringing ten students to UH Hilo, we went to the Marshall Islands to work with and train the students and the faculty at CMI. This gives them the chance to learn about the environment where they are going to be working.”

Ostertag says the resulting MINT program was designed to shore up expertise in both the students and faculty in a location in need of experienced marine scientists.

“The main idea was that the UH Hilo faculty would provide expertise and capacity building, and would go to the Marshall Islands to provide training for the students and for the CMI faculty,” explains Ostertag. “Part of this is to enhance the marine science degree at CMI by giving the faculty more tools and training in how to do research in their environment. The UH Hilo faculty were there to help lead the training of the students and provide more training to the faculty.”

In addition to UH Hilo and the College of the Marshall Islands, collaborators of the summer program were the UH Sea Grant College Program, the Coastal Management Advisory Council of the Marshall Islands, the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, and the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System.

Ostertag credits Martin Romain, director of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society as a core collaborator. “Romain spearheaded all of the work in the Marshall Islands through CMI and the UH Sea Grant College Program,” she says. “MICS had a subcontract in the grant; they handled all the details establishing connection with CMI, hiring faculty, and managing housing and stipends for students.”

Other important collaborators were Diana Melville, marine science faculty at CMI, and Max Sudnovsky, who is based out of the Marshall Island’s UH Sea Grant College Program office. Sudnovsky was one of the course’s coordinators and was instrumental in working with MICS, arranging boats for use, and scouting snorkeling sites and obtaining permissions to go to different locations.


Story by Leah Sherwood, 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.