Milestone: UH Hilo’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program celebrates 20th anniversary

Students from cohort after cohort in this highly successful program now work as conservation and environmental scientists and managers throughout the island and state. A 20th anniversary celebration will be held April 12.

A collage of photos: The TCBES logo with flora and fauna of the islands; a student tagging a shark; students in the field taking geological measurements; a group of students with a pond in the background; a group of women painting kapa.
Students in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program do their theses and internship work in Hawaiʻi Island’s environment. At lower right, a group of women paint kapa as part of a movement to bring cultural values into their scientific and scholarly endeavors. (Photo credits: TCBES/UH Hilo)

By Susan Enright.

Don Price pictured in a forest, wearing a hat.
Don Price

It’s been 20 years since Don Price, then a professor of biology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, used funding from a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to start a new graduate program focused on preparing students for careers in conservation biology and environmental science.

Part of a federally-funded collaborative project with UH Mānoa, in 2004 Price was a co-investigator of the award that aimed to improve the state’s research infrastructure. Price convened faculty from across UH Hilo, and through wide-ranging discussions and meetings, the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program (TCBES) was born.

“The overall mission of the proposed program is to provide recent baccalaureate graduates and those currently working in conservation biology and environmental science with graduate training that will prepare them for careers as conservation and environmental scientists and managers,” says Price in a 2004 media release announcing the launch of the program.

“The program will also provide students with an excellent foundation for doctoral studies in a variety of theoretical and applied disciplines. The conservation challenges that face tropical ecosystems, including Hawaiʻi, are such that solutions require a broad knowledge not only of biology, but of the physical and social sciences.”

And all that proved true.

Collage of photos: two students collecting data, a moth larvae, a lab tube.
Graduate students from the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program in the field collecting data. (Collage: TCBES/UH Hilo)
Three women taking geographic measurements in desert/lava field environment.
TCBES students measure sea level heights at an anchialine pond at the old Kona Airport. Two are current graduate students: Ihilani Kamau (front left) and Olivia Jarvis (standing), and at right is affiliate faculty and marine ecologist Lisa Marrack. July, 2023. (Photo: TCBES/UH Hilo)
A group of students gather for photo with pond in background. One student holds an orange bucket with the words: Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund.
Students in the TCBES program’s Kaiameaola Club pause from their work on anchialine pool restoration during Volunteer Day in Kaʻu, Nov. 5, 2023. The club’s mission is to increase student involvement with the conservation community through service projects on and around Hawaiʻi Island. The November restoration project was done in collaboration with the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund and TCBES alumna Megan Lamson, who has been coordinating HWF’s Hawaiʻi Island Marine Debris Removal and Anchialine Restoration projects since 2008. (Photo credit: TCBES/UH Hilo)

An interdisciplinary and diversity rich program

University of Hawaii at Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science logo, with flora and fauna of Hawaii.For 20 years, the program has given graduate students the opportunity to immerses themselves in studies, research, and environmental and community service in a wide choice of interdisciplinary fields: animal science, anthropology, applied engineering, aquaculture, biology, chemistry, computer science, entomology, forestry, geography and environmental studies, geology, horticulture, marine science, mathematics, pharmacy, philosophy, plant pathology, political science, psychology, sociology and more.

Students in the program follow one of two tracks: thesis track (conduct original research and write thesis paper) or professional internship track (immersive training in the field and write compendium). The work conducted by these students, much of it published, is largely based in Hawaiian environments ranging from marine to tropical rainforests to urban areas. Collaborative research between faculty, students, and federal and state agencies is a hallmark of the program.

Five women at work painting kapa on a tabletop. All are wearing beautiful aloha print dress, one is in lei, another with flower in her hair. They are inside a building with windows overlooking gardens.
Mio Kamioka, a current TCBES student, and a group of women paint kapa. Many TCBES students and alumni with Native Hawaiian ancestry are leaders in a movement to weave cultural values and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) into scholarly endeavors and teaching. (Photo: TCBES/UH Hilo, click to enlarge)

The program currently has 58 members of the UH Hilo faculty participating, and affiliate faculty members represent over 60 different universities, agencies, organizations, and businesses.

Greater than 60 percent of students in the program are Hawaiʻi residents. The program attracts, retains, and graduates many minority students, including Native Hawaiians (18 percent of those in the program) and Pacific Islanders. Many with Native Hawaiian ancestry are leaders in a movement to weave cultural values and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) into scientific endeavors and teaching, the fabric of new knowledge.

Incredible success

Students from cohort after cohort in this successful program have graduated with full bona fides to enter the workforce or continue on to doctoral studies in a variety of disciplines.

Jon Price pictured.
Jon Price
Becky Ostertag pictured.
Becky Ostertag

“One of the most gratifying things about teaching and mentoring TCBES students is witnessing their growth during their master’s process, and the incredible success they have had in landing jobs after, or sometimes even before, graduation,” says Becky Ostertag, a professor of biology and former director of the TCBES graduate program.

“Alumni are heavily embedded in research, education, non-profits, and outreach positions at conservation organizations across the state, something that is easy to observe at the annual Hawaiʻi Conservation Conference,” says Ostertag.

Jonathan Price, professor of geography and current director of the TCBES program, says the most fulfilling thing for him is seeing so many of the graduates in conservation leadership roles.

“Whether at a conference, a community meeting, or in direct collaboration, continuing to engage professionally with our graduates conveys a profound sense of the program’s legacy,” he says.

Two women in lei stand together for photo.
Two alumni from UH Hiloʻs tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, Trisha Leilani Olayon (left) and Cybil Eddie-Ann Kuʻumakanauʻimaikalani Glendon-Baclig, were the keynote speakers at the 2024 Women in STEM Conference held at the university Feb. 9. Both also received their baccalaureate degrees from UH Hilo (Glendon-Baclic in biology and Olayon in marine science), and both are now educators and researchers based at Kamehameha Schools’ Kumuola Marine Science Education Center in Honohononui (near Hilo). (Photo: TCBES/UH Hilo)

The future: mālama the ʻāina

Future directions under consideration for the program include becoming a school, developing a degree pathway for conservation professionals and students from outer islands and other regions of the Pacific, a 4+1 program to streamline the pipeline from bachelor’s to master’s degrees, summer field school programs, increasing faculty specializations, and recruiting more local students to grow the two program tracks.

Becky Ostertag pictured.
Tracy Wiegner

Tracy Wiegner, professor of marine science and associate director of the graduate program, says the aim is to become a statewide leader in producing conservation professionals to mālama the ʻāina (care for the land).

“TCBES is doing a great job in working toward this goal,” she says. “It is very apparent at the Hawaiʻi Conservation Conference where most everyone you see in the hall is a TCBES graduate, and early cohort members are now leaders in their conservation organization and they are hiring our recent graduates.”

Upcoming TCBES events

The 14th Annual Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Symposium will be held April 11-12, 2024, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at UH Hilo Campus Center 301. This yearʻs theme is “Hoʻomau: Sustaining Communities & Ecosystems in our Changing Climate,” and reflects on the changes occurring to ecosystems, endemic species, and indigenous communities as anthropogenic climate change continues to exacerbate social and environmental concerns.

Following the symposium, the 20th anniversary of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program will be celebrated, Friday, April 12, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. in Campus Center 301. Refreshments and live music will be provided. RSVP online.

Flyer: TCBES Turns 20! Please join us for an evening of celebration April 12, 2024, 4:30-6p, UH Hilo, CC301. Flyer features a painting of a bird the forest by Saxony Charlot.

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.

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