UH Hilo alumna, working on her PhD in Australia, inspires high school students to study STEM

Vanessa Zepeda, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UH Hilo, is featured on the cover of the current issue of Careers with STEM.

Vanessa stands next to telescope.
Vanessa Zepeda, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo alumna and Queensland University of Technology doctoral student. (Ben Ashmole)

By Susan Enright

An alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo working on her PhD in Australia is featured in an educational magazine produced down under to inspire high school students to study science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM fields.

Vanessa Zepeda, who earned her bachelor of science in marine science and master’s in tropical conservation biology and environmental science at UH Hilo, is the cover story in the current issue of Careers with STEM, which focuses on space careers.  “Combining her passion for ocean life and astrobiology, Vanessa’s career goal is to one day be a NASA mission scientist helping to look for life in the oceans of Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons, Europa and Enceladus,” the story shares.

Zepeda, who hails from Arizona, is currently living in Brisbane, now in the final year of working on her doctoral credentials at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“I had done some previous events with QUT supporting young women and young people in STEM,” says Zepeda. “The magazine reached out to see if I would be interested in being involved with their space edition and possibly be on the cover and I agreed to be involved. It was an absolutely lovely experience and Careers with STEM is doing a great job.”

Flip through the issue below, Zepeda’s story is on page 5:

Networking from UH Hilo to Queensland University of Technology

Zepeda’s cover story in Careers with STEM highlights her educational journey at UH Hilo:

Vanessa Zepeda, who originally hails from land-locked Arizona, USA, says she “fell in love with the ocean” after watching The Little Mermaid movie, and dreamed of being a scientist ever since she was a little girl.

After high school, she moved all the way to Hawaii, to study a Bachelor of Science majoring in marine biology and microbiology. And while she may not have found mermaids, the degree opened her eyes to exciting possibilities.

“My journey as an undergraduate exposed me to all the sciences and my love for biology grew from life on Earth to the possible existence of life in the cosmos,” she says.

So, turning her gaze from the ocean to the stars, Vanessa signed up for a Masters, this time with a focus on astrobiology – the study of the formation, evolution and future of life beyond Earth.

Enrolled in a graduate school internship class at UH Hilo in fall 2018, Zepeda was connected with Assistant Professor of Astronomy Heather Kaluna after expressing professional interest in astrobiology to Lisa Canale, the course instructor. Canale called Marianne Takamiya, professor of astronomy, to talk about Zepeda’s astrobiology education goals and the pathway that they could create for her, and Takamiya recommended she reach out to Kaluna. “Lisa thought it would be good to connect us because of Vanessa’s interest in astrobiology and my own experience with the UH NASA Astrobiology Institute,” says Kaluna.  

This led to Zepeda to a 14-week summer internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA, returning for a shorter internship a semester later. While she did secure her own monies through NASA for the internships, she sends thanks to Canale and Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium for their generous funding. “They do such an amazing job, and I continue to participate with their goals of getting Hawaiian residents more involved with NASA related projects, programs, and research.”

Canale points out that Zepeda “completed the tropical conservation and environmental science graduate program, all 36 credits, in only three semesters. She was in the first professional master’s cohort of 2018 and graduated in December 2019.”

It was the mentorship of Kaluna that ultimately led Zepeda to the JPL internships, which in turn led her to JPL mentor Michael Tuite who, at a conference, networked for her for the doctoral program at QUT.

And now Zepeda inspires students to reach for STEM education, too.

“I think it’s really important to engage young people as early as possible when it comes to STEM,” she says. “Technology and science are our future and young people today are the ones that are going to be running the world someday.”

“I just love being involved with anything that might get people excited about how cool our planet (and beyond!) is,” she writes in an email. “I think it is our responsibility as scientists and educators to improve communicating our science to non-academics.”

Related story

UH Hilo students visit and intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, glimpsing future careers

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.