UH Hilo hosts STEM symposium for students from Hawai‘i and across the Pacific to present their research

The student researchers are part of a network of higher education institutions from the Pacific region with a mission to expand access to science, technology, engineering, and math careers.

Group of students and faculty stand for photo in front of a poster presentation.
At the 2023 Islands of Opportunity Alliance student symposium (from left), Associate Professor of Anthropology Joe Genz who serves as director of the IOA program; student researcher RoCelia Paulino (University of Guam); student researcher Taecia Kukui Akana (UH Hilo), former student researcher Derik Tomeing Kurn (UH Hilo alumnus); and Associate Professor of Education Tobias Irish who serves as a mentor for the IOA program. Read more about Paulino and Akana’s award-winning research (2021) assessing Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander undergraduate students pursuing STEM degrees. (Photo courtesy of IOA/UH Hilo)

By Susan Enright.

Logo of sailing canoe and words: Islands of Opportunity AllianceCollege and university students from Hawai‘i and 10 Pacific campuses presented their research at an international symposium held at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo July 24-26. Administered by UH Hilo, the scientific work of the students is supported by a federal program aimed to increase underrepresented populations in science, technology, engineering, and math, commonly called STEM, careers. The Pacific group is called the Islands of Opportunity Alliance, a wide-reaching collaboration of educators, scholars, students, and researchers from American Sāmoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Hawai‘i, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Marianas Islands, and Palau.

Bonnie Irwin pictured.
Bonnie Irwin
Axel Defngin pictured.
Axel Defngin

“For some students it was their first time presenting at any conference let alone an international one, and for some it was their first time leaving their home islands,” says Axel Defngin, a UH Hilo alumnus and the Hilo-based project manager for the alliance. “One of the goals of the symposium was to promote a sense of belonging for students in STEM, and to create a safe, friendly environment for presenters to share their research experiences and connect with one another.”

UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, who delivered welcome remarks on opening day of the symposium and attended the closing ceremonies, says, “I am so proud of these students, who worked hard on their presentations and then also participated in all the academic, service and cultural events of the conference. It was an amazing three days of aloha and learning.”

Each year, the Pacific-based alliance gathers to hold a student symposium; for years since its creation in 2006 it was an in-person event held at UH Hilo. After a couple of years of virtual symposiums due to the pandemic, and last year’s July symposium hosted in Guam by the University of Guam, this year marked the return of the in-person event at UH Hilo.

Students who presented their work at the 2023 symposium come from a wide range of schools: American Samoa Community College, Chaminade University of Honolulu, College of Micronesia-FSM (Federated States of Micronesia), College of the Marshall Islands, Guam Community College, Hawai‘i Pacific University, Northern Marianas College, Palau Community College, University of Guam, UH Hilo, and UH Mānoa.

This year’s symposium theme was “Bridging Generations: I Ka Wā Ma Mua, I Ka Wā Ma Hope” (the future is in the past), based on a Hawaiian proverb. The theme also drew inspiration from a quotation by the late Tongan and Fijian writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau‘ofa (1939-2009):

“That the past is ahead, in front of us, is a conception of time that helps us retain our memories and to be aware of its presents. What is behind us [the future] cannot be seen and is liable to be forgotten readily. What is ahead of us [the past] cannot be forgotten so readily or ignored, for it is in front of our minds’ eyes, always reminding us of its presence. The past is alive in us, so in more than a metaphorical sense the dead are alive—we are our history.”

The symposium drew student presenters, campus coordinators, campus administrators, external advisory board members, faculty mentors, and even family members from across the alliance’s 11 learning communities and campuses. Also in attendance were representatives and students from a sister program, B2B-STAMP (Bridge to the Baccalaureate: Strategic Transfer Alliance for Minority Participation), which supports and advances STEM education and transfer students within the UH 10-campus system and is administered by Kapi‘olani Community College.

The Hilo symposium was three full days of panel discussions and presentations both poster and oral. The first day opened with a traditional kīpaepae welcoming ceremony and each day closed with huaka‘i (field trips) to do service-learning with local community groups. At the closing ceremonies, two Coordinator’s Choice awards were presented to students in both poster and oral presentation categories.


Day 1

Makani Gregg pictured.
Makani Gregg

On Day 1 (watch Day 1 on YouTube) keynote speaker was Makani Gregg, a UH Hilo alumna and former Keaholoa STEM Scholar who is now a conservationist with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Anthropology major Bethany Okamoto, who is the first second-generation Keaholoa STEM Scholar at UH Hilo, and her mother, Michelle Correia, who was in the program 20 years ago, shared their inspiring story (learn more about their story)—that panel was moderated by Drew Kapp, a geographer from Hawai‘i Community College. Several students presented their research in a wide range of topics from food security to tattoo mathematics to spacecraft trajectory and rocket competition. The day ended with a huaka‘i to Pu‘u Huluhulu, a volcanic cone located near the center of Hawai‘i Island.

Click photos to enlarge:


Day 2

On Day 2 (watch Day 2 on YouTube) there was a panel discussion led by three alliance program coordinators: Peltin Olter-Pelep, a UH Hilo alumnus from the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program‘s 2010 cohort and College of Micronesia-FSM’s IOA coordinator; AJay Sunga, Guam Community College’s coordinator; and Chrystie Naeole, an assistant professor of biology at alliance member Chaminade University in Honolulu. Students then gave poster and oral presentations. The day ended with a huaka‘i to do service-learning at Waiuli fishpond, hosted by Hui Ho‘oleimaluō, a local group that facilitates Hawaiian cultural activities. (Two founding members of Hui Ho‘oleimaluō who are now caretakers of Waiuli loko i‘a that the group visited, Nāhōku Kahana and Kamala Anthony, are both alumni from the UH Hilo Keaholoa STEM Scholars program that serves underrepresented minority students—in particular Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders—to bolster their academic success in the STEM fields.)

Panel discussion with three Islands of Opportunity Alliance program coordinators (from left) Peltin Olter-Pelep, College of Micronesia-FSM; AJay Sunga, Guam Community College; and Chrystie Naeole, an assistant professor of biology at Chaminade University in Honolulu. The panel was moderated by Axel Defngin (at right), Hilo-based IOA project manager. (Graphics and photos courtesy IOA/UH Hilo)

Click photos to enlarge:

Three images: Group photo, people standing next to fishpond listening to teacher, group in large circle learning chant. MAHALO NUI Hui Ho‘oleimaluō.
Day 2 of the symposium ended with a huaka‘i (field trip) to do service-learning in the Waiuli fishpond, hosted by Hui Ho‘oleimaluō, a local group that facilitates Hawaiian cultural activities. (Graphics and photos courtesy IOA/UH Hilo)

Day 3

On Day 3 (watch Day 3 on YouTube), there was a presentation and panel by Barbara Quimby, an assistant professor of marine science and policy and the IOA coordinator at Hawai‘i Pacific University in Honolulu, and two students working on the alliance-wide Climate Change Social Science Project. The day ended with a huaka‘i to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and a closing ceremony dinner.

At the closing ceremonies, awards were presented:

    • For oral presentations: Dean Jr. Rudimch (Palau Community College) and Faamusami Sinisa (American Samoa Community College).
    • For poster presentations: Moani Pomare (Kapiolani Community College) and KaiLei‘a Duriano (Hawai‘i Pacific University).

Meanwhile, also on Day 3: Several students already involved in Islands of Opportunity Alliance research about the impact of the program on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander undergraduate students pursuing STEM degrees, conducted interviews among participants on the last day of the symposium.

Student researchers Taecia Kukui Akana (UH Hilo), Evangeline Lokebol (UH Hilo alumna from the Marshall Islands), RoCelia Paulino (University of Guam), and former student researcher Derik Tomeing Kurn (UH Hilo alumnus from the Marshall Islands) collected the stories of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander STEM students who are participating in the IOA program. Advisors of the project are Associate Professor of Anthropology Joe Genz who serves as director of the IOA program and Associate Professor of Education Tobias Irish, both at UH Hilo, and Monique Storie, dean of University Libraries at University of Guam.

Student researcher Akana, who graduated from UH Hilo last May, started her investigations into the IOA STEM students a couple of years ago while an undergraduate. She is now a researcher on the IOA team continuing the process as part of a five-year investigation. “This research is qualitative and falls under the social sciences and is crucial in proving our stance that indigenous, cultural, ecological worldviews and knowledge are the foundations of STEM, and therefore a big reason why we are advocating for culturally informed STEM programs like those under the (Islands of Opportunity Alliance) program in order to offer pathways for underrepresented students like (Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders) and also to create necessary diversity in the STEM fields,” she explains.

Read more about this ongoing award-winning research assessing Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander undergraduate students pursuing STEM degrees.

Here are some photos taken on Day 3 of the symposium, click to enlarge:

Two female students in red shirts take a selfie.
ALOHA and MAHALO! (Photo: IOA/UH Hilo)

Federal support

The Islands of Opportunity Alliance is supported through the federal Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. LSAMP was launched by the National Science Foundation in 1991 with a mission to assist universities and colleges in diversifying the nation’s STEM workforce by increasing the number of STEM baccalaureate and graduate degrees awarded to populations historically underrepresented in these disciplines: African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Native Pacific Islanders. The program is particularly aimed at encouraging students from two-year programs to continue their education at four-year institutions.

Related stories

Learn more about the Pacific-based Islands of Opportunity Alliance and the STEM research conducted by its students:

UH Hilo hosts alliance of scholars, educators from Hawai‘i and 10 Pacific Island nations to discuss strengthening the pipeline into STEM careers

Inaugural online DataCamp launches first Pacific-wide STEM learning community

NSF recognizes students for their research into Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander STEM students


Story 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.