UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen: Tracy Wiegner, marine scientist teaching students and communities about coastal water quality

Professor of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner is motivated by her students and the local community to discover and share as much knowledge as possible about the water quality of Hawai‘i Island’s coasts.

By Leah Sherwood.
This post is part of a series on Quintessential University Citizens at UH Hilo. The honorees were chosen by members of the Chancellor’s Executive Council and others during the first months after Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s arrival at the university in July 2019.

Tracy Wiegner
Tracy Wiegner

Tracy Wiegner, professor of marine science at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, says the major motivation in her work is the interaction she has with students and the local community. Her mission is to discover and share as much knowledge as possible about the water quality of Hawai‘i Island’s coasts, especially those near island communities.  Her collaborative spirit is proving to be the greatest asset in reaching her goals.

Working on a project headed by Prof. of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner, and with guidance from Leilani Abaya (pictured at left), then a graduate student in the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, summer interns from the UH Hilo Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science, or PIPES, collect seaweed and water samples along the Puakō coastline for detection of sewage pollution. (From left) Abaya, Devon Aguiar, Byran Tonga, and Jazmine Panelo (all marine science majors at UH Hilo) and Belytza Velez from the University of Puerto Rico. Summer of 2015. Courtesy photo

Wiegner’s work ethic is student-centered and community-based. For years, she has included students in her research into pathogens in coastal areas around the island, the findings of which arm communities with crucial information that inform remediation and conservation efforts. Wiegner says that being a resource for local communities in this way is a major motivation that drives her to publish her findings.

Wiegner also has developed, from scratch, a state-of-the-art laboratory in which to conduct water testing, a resource now being used by federal agencies and the regional research community.

Professor Wiegner says the favorite part of her job is being an advisor to students.

“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.”

It is because of this important and meaningful teaching, research, and community outreach that Professor Wiegner has been recognized as a Quintessential University Citizen by the Chancellor’s Executive Council. Ken Hon, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, notes that Wiegner’s ability to teach and energize students about water quality, specifically the high-impact study of pathogens in Hilo Bay, is worthy of the recognition.

Research with community impact

Wiegner, who has been at UH Hilo for 17 years, received her doctor of philosophy in oceanography from Rutgers. She has focused much of her research on nutrients in organic matter, and in the last ten years or so has shifted to microbial water quality. Her current work has real-world implications.

In 2019, she and graduate student Louise Economy led a team that documented how rainfall brings harmful bacteria into Hilo Bay. The research was published in a prestigious journal and generated intense media attention in the state of Hawai‘i. The study was a collaboration of state agencies along with UH Hilo faculty and alumni now working in health and science fields. The findings revealed Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called 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. The caution from Wiegner to swimmers and surfers to stay home after a heavy rainfall sounded alarms in the local community.

Aerial of Hilo Bay
Aerial view of Hilo Bay. Research headed by Tracy Wiegner revealed staph and fecal indicator bacteria in the bay increase with rainfall and river discharge; cloudy water is associated with higher bacteria concentrations, and high salinity with lower bacteria concentrations. Release of the findings, and the caution to swimmers and surfers to stay away from the bay after a heavy rainfall, sounded alarms in the local community. Photo credit: Hollyn Johnson/UH Hilo.

In 2015, Wiegner was part of a team of UH Hilo researchers who helped coastal communities affected by Tropical Storm Iselle, a devastating hit on the night of Aug. 7, 2014, that wreaked havoc in Puna on Hawai‘i Island. While others on the team investigated fallen albizia trees and water connectivity, Wiegner studied coastal water quality and reported back with her findings to the local community.

Also in 2015, the community of Puakō in South Kohala, Hawai‘i Island, approached Wiegner for help in determining if sewage pollution was present in their nearshore waters and impacting the coral reefs. Wiegner and her research team have just concluded the data collection phase of tracking potential sewage pollution sources on Puakō coral reefs. “We are answering several questions,” explains Wiegner. “Is there sewage present? If so, where is it coming from? Do we see it on the reefs?”

Wiegner says she is motivated to publish her research because it is important to her that the community has access to the information. “One of my motivations is being a resource to the community,” she says. “Different communities recognize they have certain environmental issues and they need information and I like to be a resource to them.”

Wiegner and her fellow UH Hilo scientists are proud of the community relationships they have established on Hawai‘i Island. She believes it is only through strong partnerships with members of local communities that enduring remediation and conservation can take place. “Local communities must see a need for conservation activities and desire for them to occur,” she says. “It is crucial that they participate in developing these projects to meet their community’s desired outcomes, and are committed to the efforts required for long-term success.”

University service, building a workforce

Prof. Wiegner and Randee Tubal stand on the banks of the river with a large wooden box with testing equipment.
From left, Randee Tubal, a graduate of UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, who now works at the Hawaiʻi Department of Health Clean Water Branch, assists Professor Wiegner with water sampling on the Wailuku River after a storm in 2015. Courtesy photo.

With a focus on building the conservation workforce for Hawai‘i and the region, Wiegner is currently serving as director of the graduate program in tropical conservation biology and environmental science. She says the program is a valuable asset to UH Hilo in a number of ways, including recruitment of students and faculty. “They come here and they want to participate in the program,” she says.

The unique structure of the graduate program allows for close engagement between the Hawai‘i Island community and senior and junior scientists at UH Hilo. Many of the projects involve the community.

“We are building the workforce in Hawai‘i, and I don’t think that it gets recognized enough,” says Wiegner. She notes that many of UH Hilo’s alumni from the marine science and biology programs, the Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES), and the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, are the conservation workforce of the state.

Building a science infrastructure on campus

Wiegner’s mentorship activity includes students assisting with her research projects, and finding the support she needs to include the students is part of the job. “Acquiring funding to address conservation questions is one aspect of applying for research grants,” she says. “Another, and equally important aspect is acquiring funds to support students—their salaries, supplies and attending conferences.”

One of Wiegner’s enduring accomplishments is the success of the UH Hilo Analytical Lab, which was established in 2003 with a National Science Foundation grant. Wiegner, who serves as faculty advisor for the lab, knew that eventually the grant funding would end, so she worked with her staff to build a successful, largely sustainable laboratory.

Three people stand in lab next to large testing equipment.
(Left to right) Technician Erik Johnson, Lab Manager Tara Holitzki and Prof. of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner stand next to the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer, UH Hilo Analytical Laboratory, 2017. Courtesy photo.

Today, the lab is mostly financially independent, a fact that brings Wiegner pride. “The university only pays the salary of the manager position,” she says. “Everything else we pay for ourselves: supplies, service contracts, new instrumentation, student employees, and the assistant manager. We applied and received a grant for half a million dollars to replace our most expensive instrument that was 10 years old.”

The lab includes analytical chemistry instrumentation for environmental samples (water, soil, plant, animal tissue). It runs much like a business, with clients that range from members of the local community to federal agencies to international researchers. “Known as a hub for research and training on Hawai‘i Island, the lab has a state-wide, and even an international, reputation for its high quality and rapid services,” says Wiegner.

Running a financially independent business comes with its challenges. “We have to make sure we have enough clients and keep them happy,” says Wiegner. “We give them high quality data and a fast turnaround time.” The lab’s clients include the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and researchers from UH Hilo, UH Mānoa, Australia, Spain, and South America.

“None of this success would be possible without my awesome employees,” she says. “When you find good employees, they need to feel valued, and they need to feel it is their mission to ensure success. I’m very lucky to have them.”

 

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.

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