UH Hilo alumna receives prestigious fellowship to address marine water pollution

For the next two years, Shayla Waiki will be project coordinator at a nonprofit working on Hawai‘i cesspool and wastewater issues.  

Three students at the waters edge in Hilo Bay holding equipment for marine studies.
From left, Joseph Crispin Nakoa, Shayla Waiki, and Devon Aguiar during field research as graduate students in October 2020, Lili‘uokalani Park, Hilo Bay, Hawai‘i Island. The findings were part of Waiki’s thesis research for her master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science, a program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright.

An alumna from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has received a prestigious fellowship from University of Hawai‘i’s Sea Grant College Program. Hawai‘i Sea Grant is part of a national network of programs that promote better understanding, conservation, and use of coastal resources.

Shayla Waiki pictured.
Shayla Waiki

Shayla Waiki, with a bachelor of science in marine science and a master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from UH Hilo, started her E. Gordon Grau Fellowship in August as project coordinator at Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations (WAI), a nonprofit working on Hawai‘i cesspool and wastewater issues.  

As project coordinator at WAI, Waiki is working on initiatives to restore watersheds, marine water, and reefs affected by sewage pollution from cesspools and failing septic systems. The WAI website notes that over 88,000 cesspools in Hawai‘i leach over 53 million gallons per day of untreated wastewater into the ground. Much of this reaches groundwater and the ocean, causing pollution problems that impact drinking water, coastal waters, public health, and coral reefs.

Tracy Wiegner
Tracy Wiegner

“All of Shayla’s professional science experience has led her to receive the prestigious Hawai‘i Sea Grant Grau fellowship,” says Tracy Wiegner, professor of marine science at UH Hilo and mentor to Waiki. “And, this professional opportunity will provide her with additional experience working on wastewater issues in the state from an engineering and policy perspective.”

During the next two years, Waiki will be facilitating infrastructure projects, providing technical expertise, writing up grant proposals, doing background research on wastewater infrastructure, supervising interns and volunteers, and creating interactive geographic information systems (GIS) through maps and outreach websites.

“In the future, with this fellowship under her belt, and a degree in environmental law, Shayla will be a driving force shaping water laws and policies in the state of Hawai‘i,” says Wiegner.

From family outings to scientific research

Waiki’s passion for the ocean began as a child raised on Hawai‘i Island, spending time in the ocean with her family.

“I was raised in a family of fishermen, divers, and ‘opihi pickers, all-around water people,” she says in a spring 2022 blog post on the Sea Grant website while she was finishing up her graduate studies as a Hawai‘i Sea Grant Graduate Fellow.

“My weekends were for family, and inevitably we ended up at the beach. I looked forward to my summers spent at the beach, camping with family at our favorite spots and eating ʻopihi straight off the rocks. These are the memories I will cherish forever. The ocean is a part of who I am, my cure for everything, so of course it played a role in developing my passions. My interest in anything ocean-related was automatic.”

After she received her bachelor’s degree in marine science from UH Hilo, Waiki worked at the Water Resources Research Center as a marine technician on Hawai‘i Island for an Act 125 project, a federal project that provided the state with water quality data to aid in determining priority areas for cesspool conversion by the year 2050.

She pursued her master of science degree at UH Hilo researching water quality, sewage pollution, groundwater springs, and the movement of freshwater, in the places where she grew up. Her graduate thesis focused specifically on her investigation into sewage pollution in Keaukaha, Hawai‘i, and nearby shorelines. 

Waiki’s primary thesis advisor was Associate Professor of Marine Science Steven Colbert; Professor Wiegner was co-advisor. Support was provided through Hawai‘i Sea Grant and Hau‘oli Mau Loa Foundation.

E. Gordon Grau Fellowship

The Sea Grant Fellowship was created in recognition of Professor Emeritus E. Gordon Grau’s service of more than 14 years to the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Hawai‘i. The fellowship provides support for post-graduate students who are interested in gaining on-the-job experience in marine and watershed resource policies and programs in Hawai‘i. The program matches highly motivated and qualified recent graduates of graduate programs with hosts in state, federal, or municipal agencies and nonprofits in Hawai‘i for a two-year paid fellowship of $5,000 per month.

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.

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