Marine biologist Tim Grabowski sees great value in students gaining skills in teleconferencing

Associate Professor Grabowski sees the inconveniences and discomforts of online learning as an opportunity for future conservation biologists to train for global teleconferencing and collaboration.

By Emily Burkhart.

Timothy Grabowski holding a fish
Tim Grabowski

Tim Grabowski, adjunct associate professor of marine science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, holds a unique position within the university as both faculty and federal employee. As the unit leader of the Hawaiʻi Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, which is part of the National Cooperative Research Units Program within the U.S. Geological Survey, Grabowski’s dual positions have created opportunities for collaboration with several state agencies as well as UH Mānoa to deliver hands-on, practical instruction to students, often remotely.

“I was doing distance learning before it was cool to do distance learning,” jokes the professor, who experienced a smooth transition to virtual instruction when the pandemic began last spring.

Grabowski also serves as affiliate faculty at UH Mānoa and as adjunct faculty in the Department of Natural Resources Management at Texas Tech University. Current research projects under his purview range from analyzing the effects of coral bleaching in West Hawaiʻi on the prevalence of ciguatera in reef fishes, to tracking various shark populations with innovative techniques, and building “fish treadmills” for ʻoʻopu to better understand the effects of invasive species on native habitats.

His fisheries ecology course at UH Hilo incorporates students from across UH campuses and at multiple levels: UH Hilo undergraduates in marine science and graduate students in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, and UH Mānoa students within the natural resources and environmental management department.

As remote instruction was already built into this course due to its interisland student body, the transition for Grabowski last semester to online classes was seamless. Students greatly appreciated the professor’s level-headed approach and willingness to work with them to ensure the course could be completed amidst covid interruptions.

“[He] was amazing at getting our class engaged and keeping us engaged,” says one student in an anonymous survey from last semester meant to evaluate the success of faculty transitioning to online teaching. “He was very understanding with the situation as well. He did a great job.”

The value of training for remote collaboration

Grabowski sees the inconveniences and discomforts of online learning as an opportunity for future conservation biologists to train for global teleconferencing and collaboration. His current unit leader position at the federal fisheries agency is a fulcrum point of collaboration between UH, USGS, and the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, all of which are working collaboratively in postgraduate programs at both UH Hilo and UH Mānoa campuses to train professionals for future employment with state and federal agencies.

Grid of student in online class.
Students in one of Tim Grabowski’s online classes, Dec. 2, 2020. Courtesy photo.

The Hawaiʻi Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, which has recently been re-established at UH Hilo, was created in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration with a shared vision of developing the scientific knowledge and natural resource professionals necessary to ensure the sustainability of Hawaiian natural resources for future generations.

After receiving his doctoral degree from Clemson University in South Carolina, the fisheries ecologist and biologist held positions as visiting faculty at the University of Iceland as well as positions in Texas, which often necessitated remote collaboration.

“I’ve done a lot of work internationally and worked in areas where this is the norm,” says Grabowski. “You often have team members who are in different countries. For better or worse, teleconferencing has been a part of my professional life.”

Despite overall smooth sailing last semester, the associate professor has encountered some challenges this semester, one being the facilitation of fluid classroom discussion virtually, a staple of his face-to-face pedagogical approach. The success noted in the student survey comes from a hybrid approach of online classes plus in-person labs and field work.

The hybrid approach

Tracy Wiegner
Tracy Wiegner
Rebecca Ostertag
Rebecca Ostertag

For Grabowski’s core graduate classes in conservation biology, team taught this semester with Professor of Marine Science Becky Ostertag and Associate Professor of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner, both online lectures and in-person lab components make up their courses.

“Grad school is that transition from being a student to being a peer,” Grabowski notes. “Coming to that realization that the person who’s delivering information or evaluating your work is also a peer in your field is a big part of personal and professional development in graduate school.”

He says it is imperative that students take initiative to participate online despite what he calls “Planet Zoom” inhibitions or shyness. “Even if it’s challenging to interact with instructors, I hope that students don’t let these Zoom screens box them in on that.”

Another hurdle the team has faced with their graduate cohort due to pandemic restrictions has been facilitating safe, socially distanced, but hands-on lab components. In-person labs are necessary for students to receive the proper education expected of future scientists. Labs on campus have been designed to keep students and faculty safe with face mask requirements, spacing between work stations, and easily accessible sanitation stations. Field work is conducted also with masks and social distancing. And with those safety measures in place in the labs and field, and the online components designed for student involvement, education moves forward as normally as possible.

“The lecture portion and the lab portion are really focused on less a conveyance of information and more practical training of how to be a scientist,” he says.

Practical skills include training students in technical scientific writing, oral communication of science, critical evaluation of scientific literature, the basics of experimental design, statistical analysis, and ensuring data quality and integrity.

Establishing safe conditions for students to conduct labs during a global pandemic has never been done before.

“So, we improvised,” says Grabowski, who is pleased with the way student projects are unfolding. One group is focusing on urban ecological concerns like mapping chicken habitats and distribution through observational studies. For students who may have had to leave the island, they are able to phone in during data collection and participate more fully in phases of the project such as data analysis. “We’re still trying new things. It has turned out ok, for coming up on the fly with ideas,” he says.

Despite navigating a few bumps in the road, students’ master’s theses are proceeding while these future scientists adapt to new covid requirements.

“It’s definitely been different. Challenging. I can’t say that I like it,” says Grabowski, not shying away from realism about the difficulties of the new normal that is almost anything but. “But it’s what we have to deal with at the moment.”


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.