UH Hilo students present their research at National Diversity in STEM Conference

UH Hilo student presenters Shania Tamagyongfal and Taecia Kukui Akana received awards for their poster presentations in the Traditional Knowledge category.

Large group of students gathered for photo. Background sign: National Diversity STEM Conference.
STEM students recognized for their research and presentation skills at 2023 National Diversity in STEM Conference, October 30, 2023, Portland, Oregon. Two UH Hilo students received awards for their poster presentations. (Courtesy SACNAS)

By Evangeline Lemieux.

Several students from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo recently traveled to the 2023 National Diversity in STEM Conference in Portland, Oregon, to present their research. The annual conference is sponsored by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

Two UH Hilo presenters received awards for their poster presentations in the Traditional Knowledge category.

Shania Tamagyongfal pictured
Shania Tamagyongfal

Graduate student Shania Tamagyongfal, who is in UH Hilo’s heritage management program, received an award for her poster presentation on Yapese traditional knowledge.

In her presentation entitled, “Weaving Oral Histories of Yapese Navigation with Remathau Community Engagement in Re-Establishing Voyaging Networks for Sustainable Sea Transport,” Tamagyongfal presented her master’s thesis, which focuses on documenting oral histories of Yapese voyaging relevant to the sawei system between Yap and its outer islands.

“These oral histories will help strengthen the current research literature on inter-island voyaging and its community engagement, rather than just focusing on the mechanics of voyaging, which has already been thoroughly documented,” Tamagyongfal states in the presentation’s abstract. “The data collected from the oral histories will later be used in its application as a method of climate change adaptation with the concept of voyaging for sustainable sea transport.”

Tamagyongfal says she is appreciative of the feedback from the assigned mentor judges at the conference. She valued “engaging in discussions of new ideas to relate to or build further on in my research.”

Taecia Akana pictured
Taecia Akana

Undergraduate student presenter Taecia Kukui Akana, a research apprentice working with Associate Professor of Education Tobias Irish and Associate Professor Anthropology Joe Genz, received an award for her poster presentation on interviewing Indigenous student scientists about their experiences.

Akana’s study, titled, “Maan Jepopo: Motivations and Goals to Pursue STEM in the Pacific Islands,” aims to understand Pacific Islander students’ motivations and goals regarding their pursuit of higher education with a STEM degree. She conducted ethnographic interviews with Pacific Islander students to collect qualitative data on their lived experiences, where she discovered participants often referred back to their experiences with family members, their ways of life as Indigenous islanders, and the passing on of cultural knowledge.

“The data reveals and highlights the value that Pacific Islander STEM students bring to the STEM community, being that they come with prior ecological knowledge and intimate connections to the land and sea,” Akana states in the project’s abstract.

Increasing representation of native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders in STEM fields

The conference is a chance for Indigenous and Hispanic/Chicano students to showcase their research work in science, math, engineering, and math—the STEM fields—and the social sciences. Students from UH Hilo who attended presented their research while networking and learning about other students and experts’ research.

Axel Defngin
Axel Defngin

Joining the delegation to the Portland, Oregon, conference in October was Axel Defngin, project manager for the Islands of Opportunity Alliance, a program headquartered at UH Hilo that includes a network of higher education institutions from Hawai‘i and 10 Pacific Island nations with a mission to expand access to careers in STEM fields for underrepresented populations. Defngin says the SACNAS conference helped the alliance realize their main goal.

“The ultimate goal is to increase representation of native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders in STEM fields,” he says. “For everyone in the delegation, it was our first time being registered for SACNAS. We had three student presenters, one undergrad and two graduate, and two [whose] role was to go and experience the conference. For all of us it was the biggest conference that we’ve ever been to. It’s like six thousand-plus [attendees] that they had this year in Portland.”

The students presented a variety of research projects. The students pursuing a master degrees in heritage management at UH Hilo presented their thesis work.

Group photo at conference.
UH Hilo delegation at the 2023 National Diversity in STEM Conference in Portland, Oregon, in October. (Courtesy photo)

Science grounded in Indigenous ancestral knowledge

One thing that the presenters from UH Hilo hoped to bring into the conference was their background in Indigenous science methods and epistemology. This means that for the students, science is grounded in an understanding of Indigenous ancestral knowledge.

“The most meaningful experience I had while attending this conference was being affirmed many times by peers, judges, and professionals alike that I am indeed a STEM researcher,” says Akana. She says her biggest takeaway from the conference is that she now feels validated as a researcher. “ʻIke kuʻuna, Indigenous/ancestral knowledge is my foundation for science,” she says.

“Prior to attending this conference, I was very hesitant to identify as part of the STEM community because I do not explicitly pursue a STEM degree,” Akana says. “Despite this, I always felt like I could better grasp scientific ideologies through my own cultural knowledge and understanding of how the world works, and this is something I have had many conversations about with my fellow kanaka ʻōiwi peers who actually do pursue STEM majors.”

Fellow presenter Jerolynn Myazoe, who is pursuing a master of arts degree in heritage management, says the underrepresentation of traditional knowledge presenters caught her attention.

“Being able to present our research about the importance of traditional knowledge at a major conference gave me a greater appreciation for the work that we’re currently doing,” she says.

Group having a discussion siting around a table.
UH Hilo graduate student Jerolynn Myazoe, at far right, discusses traditional Marshallese seafaring at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, Stanford University, Dec 9, 2022. From left, navigation practitioner Alson Kelen and UH Hilo students Shania Tamagyongfal and Tromainne Joab. (Archive photo)

Myazoe’s work in heritage management, while not typical of a STEM conference, also helps facilitate learning and exploration of Indigenous knowledge and culture. Her presentation, titled, “Advancing Climate Change Adaptation in the Marshall Islands through Oral Histories of Voyaging Interaction Networks,” focuses on the Marshall Islands, which consists of low-lying atolls that are on the frontlines of combating climate change.

“As sea levels continue to rise, the threat of ocean water penetrating the atolls’ freshwater lenses and inundating the islands increases every day,” states Myazoe in her project’s abstract. “The aim of this project is to collect oral histories of the traditional forms of community engagement that traditionally and historically supported Marshallese seafaring and to use that knowledge for adaptive solutions to climate change impacts.”

Myazoe found the role of Marshallese women in ancestral patterns of island resilience, coupled with insights from archaeology, provide an emerging framework of community engagement.

Related story

Students travel to Stanford University for workshop on seafaring, present their research

Story by Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.

Share this story