Alumni Stories of Excellence

These alumni embody UH Hilo's strategic goal – to prepare students to thrive, compete, innovate and lead in their professional and personal lives. A quality education at UH Hilo is more than a promise, it's illustrated in the accomplishments of our students, faculty and distinguished alumni. Here is just a sampling of the wide range of achievements that members of our UH Hilo ‘ohana have accomplished throughout the year.

Jesse Soberman

Accounting Alumnus Achieves Top Score (B.A. in Psychology & B.B.A. in Accounting)

Jesse SobermanJesse Soberman Jesse Cedar Soberman has had quite the educational journey at UH Hilo; he graduated in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and decided to return for a BBA in accounting in 2010 and graduated, once again, in 2014. He chose to return to UH Hilo for a BBA in accounting because he had discovered that it was a rapidly growing field and he was looking to change careers, plus accounting has a lot of advancement opportunities. Currently, Soberman aspires to obtain a CPA license and continue to develop his skills in the field of accounting. However, he is keeping his options open and is considering obtaining a PhD in accounting and becoming a professor, or, someday working for an international company where he could have the opportunity to live and work in a great city such as New York, Tokyo, or London. But for now he is happy to be contributing to the business environment in Hawaiʻi and enjoying his employment with KKDLY LLC, the best CPA firm in the state of Hawaiʻi.

Soberman originally choose to attend UH Hilo because he had family in Hilo, but he chose to return to UH Hilo for his BBA degree because of the success he achieved with his first degree (from UH Hilo); plus he was also able to attend UH Hilo as a non-resident for less tuition cost than most of the resident tuition in his home state of Oregon. “The tuition [at UH Hilo] is very affordable for a world class university,” Soberman said. His attendance at UH Hilo gave him the opportunity to gain leadership in important programs and organizations that changed his career trajectory in a positive direction. “One of the most important personal developments was learning the importance of working with others, respecting others views even when different from my own, and trying to work on projects that are important to as large a group of people as possible rather than personal pet projects. Though you can never satisfy everyone, leadership involves gaining buy in from the group you represent and satisfying the needs of as many people as possible without compromising values.”

While attending UH Hilo, he was an event planner for Student Activities Council in 2010, the Chairman of the Board of Media Broadcasting in 2011 (and treasurer in 2012), and he was a member of the Accounting Club from 2010-2014 and was President from 2013-2014. He also served as the vice president of Beta Gamma Sigma the business honor society, became a member of the business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi, Lambda Psi chapter and was briefly the vice president of scholarships and awards. “I enjoyed my experience as a member of beta gamma sigma because of the great members including the majority of the business faculty and elite business students. I also enjoyed Delta Sigma Pi because of the brotherhood with diverse business students in all majors. But my best experience was as a member and president of the Accounting Club,” said Soberman as he reflected on his college life. “I learned how to work as part of a team and work towards getting buy-in to enable increased participation in our projects. We even put on a free CD release concert and club fundraiser with Kimie Miner. We also learned a lot about how to conduct ourselves in business settings and interviews, and in the accounting field in general. The culmination of the experience was our annual tours of the largest accounting firms in Oahu sponsored by the club and paid for through our fundraising efforts.”

At UH Hilo, Soberman discovered the great opportunities offered in the accounting profession through hearing about the experiences of his professors and attending accounting firm tours. He learned about the process of obtaining a CPA license and developing a successful career in accounting. “Seeing the wonderful opportunities has inspired me and other students to be some of the hardest working graduates in the state.”

Read more information about the Psychology, and Accounting program at UH Hilo.

Anna Kupcha (B.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology)

Anna KupchaAnna Kupcha Anna Kupcha was only 12 years old when she began studying at UH Hilo in 2005 through the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s "Early Admit" program; her professors and classmates made her feel like just a normal student, but she was far from a normal student. Kupcha graduated with a B.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology and was named a Presidential scholar within her graduating class in 2010. Under the tutelage of her outstanding professors at UH Hilo she was admitted into medical school at the remarkable age of 17. She then went on to graduate with high honors at the utterly stunning age of 21; this has made her one of the youngest female medical doctors in U.S. history! Kupcha is currently an intern at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, specializing in opthalmology. When she looks back she feels fortunate that UH Hilo was so accommodating and allowed her to begin her college years at such a young age. UH Hilo’s high number of faculty with PhDs, as well as small class sizes, greatly enhanced her learning experience and helped to propel her to the level of success she has attained to date.

Kupcha, beyond being a youthful medical genius, was also a performer of the arts. At age 7 she performed on Broadway, which allowed her to sing with Celine Dion. She continued to perform not only in Theater Arts performances but starred in the Hilo Palace Production of Gypsy and played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. While she was attending UH Hilo, she founded the non-profit 501(c)3 Theater Arts Conservatory which produced 6 major musical productions: Les Miserables, Broadway - the 21st Century, CATS, AIDA, and RENT, all of which benefited the youth of Hilo. Her final production at UH Hilo, 23 Reasons to Love Hawaii, raised hundreds of dollars for the Kapiolani Children's Medical Network. And while in medical school she was the lead singer of her band, The Associated Symptoms, which played professional gigs in Dallas, Texas.

During her college years at UH Hilo, Kupcha participated in and placed 1st runner up in the Miss Oahu preliminary to Miss America and 2nd runner up in the Miss Maui competition. She was also very active in UH Hilo’s chapter of "Aspiring Doctors of Hilo” and participated in their efforts to raise funds and cancer awareness by shaving their heads for the American Cancer Society Walk-a-thon.

Read more information about the Biology program at UH Hilo.

Dr. Louisa Ponnampalam (B.A. in Marine Science)

Dr. Louisa PonnampalamDr. Louisa Ponnampalam Few people’s studies can be said to be quite so international as Louisa Ponnampalam’s. A UH Hilo alumni, Ponnampalam was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she went to primary and high school. She learned English at school and from her mother, and when she graduated from school in Malaysia, she decided to move her studies to the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. It’s there that she earned her Bachelor's of Arts in Marine Science, before moving on to get her doctorate at the University of London. Her experience there included research work in Oman. From Southeast Asia, to Oceania, Europe, and the Middle East, Ponnampalam’s studies took her around the world and prepared her for the work that she does now in her home country, Malaysia.

“It’s been my lifelong dream to study Marine Science,” said Ponnampalam. “I’ve always loved the outdoors, which makes a 9-5 cubicle job very unappealing.” She compares her ‘crazy obsession’ with dolphins to the ‘dolphin version’ of a Star Wars obsession: wearing dolphin shirts, earrings and necklaces; watching documentaries about dolphins; observing marine researchers out at sea with their dive gear and giant underwater cameras. When she first decided to be a marine biologist, she didn't really know what that meant, but she pursued her passion, which led her all around the world.

Ponnampalam’s college education started at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, where she whipped through her studies at an incredible pace and graduated with a Bachelor's of Arts in Marine Science in 2003. A recipient of tuition waivers, she also worked several jobs while being a full-time student taking as many as 21 credits. “Hawaiʻi is such a fantastic place to study the natural sciences, especially marine science,” said Ponnampalam. “Hawaiʻi has the benefit of being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, which is home to a diverse array of marine life.”

After graduating from UH Hilo, she decided to look beyond the United States for her post graduate education. She finally settled on the University of London’s Scotland branch. However, she soon realized that the Scottish climate, with its year-round cold weather, slanted rain, and marshlands, were not really to her liking. “That’s part of the reason why I decided to perform my thesis work in Oman.”

After earning her doctorate degree in 2009 from the University of London, Ponnampalam moved back to her hometown, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where she was able to start her lifelong career dream – working in the field of marine science. She currently works as a research fellow at the University of Malaya, where she performs research and publishes journal articles. She also serves as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean and Sirenian Specialist Groups. Over the course of her research and work, she has come to realize that science does not serve a useful purpose unless it is accompanied by outreach and education efforts. Ponnampalam said, “While science research is good, too little of that research is spreading to non-scientists. The lay-person usually doesn't sift through journal articles, and may never have the chance to learn the exciting new things that scientists are learning.” With this in mind, Ponnampalam founded a new non-profit that she dubbed MareCet, with the goal of educating the public of Malaysia about marine mammals and the marine environment. It also aims to teach children why conservation efforts are so important today. “Applying what we learn from our research is just as important as the research itself. This makes the research work more meaningful and rewarding.”

Ponnampalam’s fervent passion and work in marine life research and conservation efforts over the years have not gone unnoticed. She was awarded the prestigious 2014 Marine Conservation Fellowship from the PEW Charitable Trust, renowned worldwide for its support of work to "improve public policy, inform the public and invigorate civic life." The first Malaysian to receive this outstanding award, she will receive $150,000 to conduct a three-year study on dugongs in Malaysia; her research will assist in international dugong conservation efforts. Ponnampalam’s accomplishments were also recognized by Malaysia’s Prime Minister, who presented her with the 2014 National Youth Premier Award. She was also invited to be a speaker at the TEDx talk in Kuala Lumpur, where she presented her talk on Whales, Dolphins and What the Sea is Saying .

Dr. Louisa Ponnampalam’s journey of her childhood dream to her list of highly impressive achievements is nothing short of inspirational. Her message to students at UH Hilo and the world-at-large: “People should start thinking that if they love the environment, if they love conservation, they don’t have to become biologists or ecologists. They can take up biology, but they can also take up social sciences. That’s as much a part of conservation as natural science. In the end, conservation is not a one team battle. It’s everybody’s battle.”

Read more information about the Marine Science program at UH Hilo.

Neil Scheibelhut (B.A. in Cell & Molecular Biology) & Sophie Milam (B.S in Astronomy; B.A. in Physics)

UH Hilo alumni selected for Mars simulation

Neil ScheibelhutNeil Scheibelhut

Sophie MilamSophie Milam

From the ancient Romans to H.G. Wells, humans have always been passionate about Mars. Soon, we may even be able to establish a scientific research colony on the red planet. But in order for this sci-fi story turned reality to come true, huge amounts of research need to be done – a large quantity of that research involves how the human body and mind react to isolation and separation.

The University of Hawaiʻi, along with NASA and Cornell University, have come up with a new research plan: the Hawaiʻi Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program. The program hopes to create as realistic an analog to Mars as possible while still conforming to the restraints of planet Earth. On the slopes of Mauna Loa, a dome has been constructed at an abandoned quarry 8,200 feet in elevation. All together (including living space and a small workshop), the dome has only 1,462 square feet of usable space – less than the average American home. And as of October 15, 2014, 6 crew members will live in the dome for 8 months, without ever once leaving. Two of the selected crew members are UH Hilo alumni Neil Scheibelhut and Sophie Milam.

photo of interior of dome

photo of interior pods within dome

Exterior and interior dome habitat photos by Sian Proctor.

floorplan blueprint

Habitat sketch

Habitat sketches by Angelo Vermeulen.

Sophie Milam, a UH Hilo alumni originally from Texas, specializes in robotics. All of the inhabitants of the Mars simulation dome have personal projects to attend to while they are in isolation. Sophie's goal in her own words, is to “develop evolutionary algorithms for tensegrity structures robotics.” In anticipation of her seclusion, Sophie has been eating all of her favorite foods. The supplies brought into the habitat must be able to last for at least 2 years; everything the researchers will be eating will either be freeze or air dried. She has also prepared to leave her dog, boyfriend, and hedgehog behind, who won't be allowed to visit her. From now on, Sophie, Neil, and the other crew members will have to live under near constant surveillance, with cameras in all common areas. No drugs, alcohol, or tobacco can enter the habitat, and all crew members must wear biosensors that will monitor their various biological systems.

When all of the project confines are listed, the dome sounds almost like a prison. But neither Sophie Milam nor Neil Scheibelhut feel that way; both of them expressed their enthusiasm. “I am incredibly excited. To me, this research is extremely important to fulfilling a mission to put a human on Mars. To be a part of it is an amazing feeling,” Neil said. “I've always wanted to be a Mars astronaut, and for me this would be [confirmation] that I could survive the trip to Mars,” said Sophie. Of course, they do have some reservations – because this is a research mission, there are many questions that the crew members are "guinea pigs" to answering. In some ways, this is just as much of a social experiment as a scientific one. Neil said: “I am definitely nervous. Will the crew get along for 8 months? Will there be drama? Will I get cabin fever? Will we be faced with an emergency? What will I miss in the outside world while I'm isolated from it? I'm sure the nerves will die down once we are in the habitat and start to get into a routine, but for now, I've certainly got some butterflies.”

No matter which way you look at it, this project is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind opportunity for both the crew members and the researchers surveying them. When asked about research opportunities at UH Hilo, Neil had this to say: “I think the Big Island as a whole is an amazing place for research…UH Hilo has a large hand in that research, and continues to bring in new faculty, which only serves to expand on those opportunities.” Both Neil and Sophie expressed their appreciation toward John Hamilton, an instructor of physics and astronomy at UH Hilo. He was the main instigator of their involvement in the HI-SEAS program.

Someday, the invaluable data that is obtained will help NASA and private contractors develop new space programs and housing systems on Mars and the Space Station. However, both Sophie and Neil have an ulterior motive beyond pure altruism – both of them hope to some day go to Mars themselves.

Read more information about the Biology, Physics & Astronomy programs at UH Hilo.