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Stories of Excellence 2015-16

These students 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. Achieving excellence is an opportunity for every student at UH Hilo.

UH Hilo Students

no sleepTeam No Sleep


Team No Sleep, a group of four UH Hilo seniors, have made it into the Microsoft US Imagine Cup finals. They are participating in the advanced division, under the category of World Citizenship. This division of the Imagine Cup is a global competition, with efforts specifically geared towards changing our world for the better.

Team No Sleep is looking to improve the Earth starting right here in Hawai’i. Reuben Tate, Mathematics and Computer Science major and the team’s Mathematics Coordinator says their program is designed with the intent of improving restoration efforts: “We have developed a program that guides users in choosing what species of plants are most beneficial for their restoration goals. It does this by looking at properties of each plant species, called functional traits, and seeing which plants are functionally similar to one another via a statistical approach called Principal Components Analysis.”

Bryson Fung, Computer Science major and Lead Programmer elaborates, “[The program is] called Restoring Ecosystems Services Tool, or REST for short... Depending on your purpose, the program can help you build ecosystems that are more fire resistant, more preventative of invasive species, or having more carbon storage (giving ecosystems longer lifespans). The list goes on.”

“The tool uses trait and data restoration goals to help build ecosystems tailored to the need of the client,” adds Anthony Vizzone, Computer Science student and Database Manager of the team, “Biologists will be using the program to help restore the functionality of the local environment.”

Pauleen Pante is the Team Leader. She believes that their project could do some serious good for Hawai’i and eventually, have a global impact: “Around the world, various plant ecosystems are in decline due to factors such as invasive plants, human activity, and plant disease. Restoring these ecosystems is a difficult task since more times than not, it is nearly impossible to restore the ecosystem back to its original state. As a solution, researchers can instead restore ecosystem function by introducing non-native yet non-invasive plants that are similar to their native counterparts as a means of maintaining such ecosystem function. Still, finding similar plants with similar functional traits is not trivial. That is where our program comes in.”

Team No Sleep has come a long way, and they say it’s thanks to UH Hilo’s supportive environment and fantastic professors, faculty, and staff.  Tate says, “I think our entire team would like to thank Professor Keith Edwards of the Computer Science department. He's been extremely supportive of our group ever since we've started this venture back in the Fall of 2015 and he's been there every step of the way. Our team wouldn't even exist without him.”

“Professor Rebecca Ostertag is the driving force for this project. Our program was originally based on her research and she has helped us every step of the way,” adds Pante, “I would like to thank both of them for their dedication to our team and program. We’re really doing this for them.”

Tate continues, “There are a host of opportunities if you're willing to look for them. The faculty here at UH Hilo, in the Math and Computer Science department in particular, is extremely supportive.”

Their work isn’t done yet, however. In March 2016, Team No Sleep is heading to the US finals in San Francisco, California, where they will present their project along with students all over the nation. Should their project win, Team No Sleep will be advancing onto the World finals where they will compete globally.  Tate says, “When I found out we were finalists for the Microsoft Imagine Cup, it dawned on me that our program is much more than just some little class project and that it has the potential to make a difference. The competition itself is a good way to expose our application to the world and winning the competition would definitely increase that exposure. We want our product to make an impact around the world so the more people that are interested in it and the more exposure our program receives, the better.”

“Winning first place would be incredible to me. The Imagine Cup is such a prestigious award for Computer Science students and I would be very excited to share that award with the team,” says Vizzone.

There is much work to be done as the team prepares for the semifinals: “we are practicing as well as tightening up the program to be prepared to give the best pitch we’ve ever done,” states Vizzone.  Accordingly to Pante, “We have so much to do before heading to San Francisco. We have to set up a website for our team and program, create a logo, prepare a pitch speech, and prepare a booth presentation, along with updating our current program.”

“I believe the team plans to handle it as we always do: one step at a time,” says Fung. The team has big plans for the future. Having REST recognized as a necessary beneficial tool for our global environment has sparked ideas for the future. Pante says, “I would like to see our project expand beyond the scope of Hawai’i...we hope to generalize it for use around the world. The process of finding compatibility between plants can be even used by landowners and in gardens.”  Fung states, “My goal in this project is to get people to take a look at our program and consider using it for their own personal projects. I hope that our program does become more than it is now...I hope that the name becomes popular enough to be recognized instantly within the right circles.”

“I'm glad that our program is seen as something important that can make a positive impact for a lot of people,” Tate says, “we hope that our program will be used by people, organizations, and government agencies around the world in an effort to help restore [global] ecosystems.”

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

jordan2015 Pitcher of the Year Award Recipient

Senior and marine science major here at UH Hilo, Jordan Kurokawa has demonstrated his exemplary baseball skills by winning the Pitcher of the Year Award. Winning the award, which is presented yearly by the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League, or GSCBL, to outstanding college level players, was no easy task. The process involved the votes of all seven GSCBL franchises.

Kurokawa confirms, “getting this award was extremely competitive. Our conference had really good competition from around the country.  It was a very humbling experience, and I didn’t see much success at first.  But as the summer went on I made key improvements in my mechanics to be able to compete.  This summer taught me a lot about who I am as a pitcher, as well as what it takes to get to the next level.”  He claims the experience overall was very rewarding for him: “going to the mainland was a great experience, and I took pride in representing Hawai’i.” A graduate of MaryKnoll High School on Oahu, Kurokawa is certainly an excellent candidate to represent the state of Hawai’i.

Winning the Pitcher of the Year Award required a lot of effort and practice, and only a dedicated individual such as Kurokawa would have effectively pulled it off.  “I like to push myself on and off the field. Going to class every day, to mid-day workouts, then to practice, and then finally to study hall, is a physically and mentally draining process. It barely leaves me any time to sit down and have lunch, I’m often eating in my car or while walking across campus. But I love the grind. I enjoy working hard on the small aspects of pitching to see major improvements in how I throw. I’ve been able to keep up with everything by staying focused on my goals. I know that all of the hard work I put in during the summer and the fall lets me have a good chance at success in the spring season,” Kurokawa states.  His enthusiasm contributes to his success, “I am a fierce competitor...I like to take control of the game, and leave no doubt in my teammate’s minds’ that when I’m on the mound, we’re going to win.”

Kurokawa works hard to make sure his athletics and schoolwork are evenly balanced. “In order to play baseball you need to get good grades, so school has been the most important aspect of my college experience.”  He attests that much of his success is due to UH-Hilo, and its fantastic athletic programs. He says, “as an athlete at UH Hilo, I got to experience a lot of things that I wouldn’t have if I went elsewhere.” Kurokawa is proud to be a student athlete for his University because of the athletic opportunities it’s provided him. He says he owes a lot to UH Hilo’s athletic trainers as well. “Overall I’ve enjoyed my time at UH Hilo, and it’s providing me with an incredible opportunity in my baseball career.”

Support from the community has made an impression on Kurokawa and has helped him to succeed: “the community here is greatly involved with the University’s athletics. We feel a huge amount of support from our boosters and especially the youth clubs. We build bonds with the community by running youth camps, hosting special olympics, and volunteering with the Veterans Association.”

“Playing for UH Hilo has taught me how to overcome adversity,” Kurokawa confirms.

“The award was a product of the hard work I’ve put in throughout my college career,” he says. “It’s also a good reminder to keep up my work ethic, especially entering my senior season. This summer experience helped me get some exposure, and I’m looking forward to turning more heads in the upcoming season.”

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

carliOysters and Innovation

Carli Hand, a senior student at UH Hilo, has recently created a working spat machine for UH Hilo’s Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resource Center, or PACRC. The spat machine, named “Meeko”, is used by the facility to screen oyster seed. By taking the initiative to create Meeko, Carli Hand is benefiting her university and community by saving time, money, and resources.

The benefits of this spat machine are undeniable. “It is approximately equivalent to one person screening by hand for the same amount of time,” says Hand. “The spat machine was made to reduce the amount of time screening, which is repetitious work. This allows us to either screen more, thus able to sell more product; or spend that time researching other projects.”

Hand is the project manager for the oyster division at PACRC. When the need for better screening technology arose, Hand stepped up to tackle the project. “I was first set in charge of coming up with a prototype. After the prototype was approved, I built a standard version, similar to the one we have now.”

She was inspired by her own experience with hand-screening the oysters. “The first steps were done when I was screening the oysters,” she says, “The thought process behind the machine came during the hours of watching how [the oysters] fell.” Through observation, experience, and a working knowledge of mathematics, physics, and engineering, Hand was able to create a vital tool for PACRC.

The project was not easy. Hand explains: “The main challenges were obtaining a large enough and watertight box for the main enclosure; then retrofitting all of our screens to fit the box. Lots of research and testing allowed us to get to the point we are at now...after testing, we changed the bin that it was in and increased the screen size to increase our efficiency.”  Her crucial role in the spat machine project is evident. However, many things have influenced and inspired her before she reached this huge success. Hand has her education resources to thank.

Hand spent most of her childhood in Minnesota and Iowa. Afterwards, she moved to Hawai’i where she graduated from Kua O Ka La Public Charter School as Valedictorian. Now she is a successful student here at UH Hilo, with a major in mathematics and a minor in physics.  She attributes much of her success to the intellectually nurturing environment UH Hilo provides. “I have learned to step out of the box and try new things.  Being enrolled at UH Hilo has brought out my confidence as a whole...I am open to the different opportunities that life presents,” Hand states.

Now that the spat machine, Meeko, is fully functional and properly efficient, Hand reflects on her UH Hilo ’Ohana, and the influence of those who have attributed to her innovative process. “I would like to thank my teachers from UH Hilo: Dr. Brian Wissman and Dr. Bob Pelayo for dedicating their time to sit down and discuss classes, homework, and my next steps that I will take in my future.”

The future is certainly bright for Hand: she strives to utilize her skills in a field such as electrical engineering or contracting. “Either one of these jobs would use the skills that I needed to build the spat machine. These include possible prototyping, building, and testing,” she attests.  Hand encourages other students to seek new opportunities. “I recommend [getting] some hands-on experience along with school. Internships, volunteering, or jobs can make all of the difference.”


Teacher's Love for Teaching and State Award

Mariesa Williams, a Hilo High School graduate, obtained her certification from the teacher education program (TEP) at UH Hilo in May of 2011. Currently, she is enrolled in Master's of Education (MEd) program at UH Hilo and is in her fourth year of teaching at Ha’aheo Elementary School.

“Deciding to attend UH Hilo was the perfect decision for me.  The faculty members in the School of Education are extremely helpful! One of the main reasons why I chose to pursue my Master's through UH Hilo was knowing that I would be working with the same awesome faculty. You really get a sense that the professors genuinely care about you. They are very approachable, dedicated and available. They provide just the right amount of help and support that will allow you to feel confident and successful as a student,” said Williams.

UH Hilo has helped Williams find a career that she is truly passionate about. “I had obtained an undergraduate degree from UH Manoa in Business Management and quickly realized that I did not want to spend my life in the business world,” she admitted. “UH Hilo’s School of Education made a positive impact on my life. I have found a career that I love!”  She further added, “I knew I wanted to have a career where I felt like I was making a difference in people's lives. The experiences you get from teaching students are rewarding and hard to express in words. When you experience it, you’d know. Being able to have a positive impact on students' lives and knowing that I can help them reach their own goals in life makes all the "other stuff" that comes with teaching, worth it.”

Williams received the 2015 National Milken Educators of Hawaii ‘Teacher of Promise’ Award for her exemplary teaching. “I was extremely surprised and humbled by that honor,” said Williams. The Award recognizes excellence and professionalism in teachers within their first four semester of teaching in public schools.  In addition to the award, the National Milken Educators of Hawaii presented Williams with one thousand dollars.

Read more information about the School of Education program at UH Hilo.

John Hamilton Mars TeamColin MilovsoroffNiki Thomas

UH Hilo Student & Faculty Mars Landing Site Team- From left to right: Physics & Astronomy Instructor John Hamilton, student Niki Thomas, Associate Professor of Geology Steven Lundblad, student Colin Milovsoroff, Physics & Astronomy Instructor Norman Purves

Colin Milovsoroff (above left) - Geology major
Niki Thomas - (above right) Biology and Astronomy major

UH Hilo Team Proposes Landing Sites for First Manned Mission to Mars

UH Hilo instructors John Hamilton, Norman Purves and the Geology department’s associate professor Steve Lundblad, collaborated with Geology senior Colin Milovsoroff and Biology and Astronomy sophomore Niki Thomas; together they worked on a proposal to identify candidate locations on Mars for humans to land. Colin and Niki began last summer as interns for the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), where they examined analogs looking for places in Hawai‘i that are geologically similar to Mars. Their work at PISCES qualified them for NASA's First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars, but their interest and dedication to the field is what made them the most optimal student researchers to work with.

The UH Hilo team was selected to present their research at NASA's workshop in Houston, Texas, held from October 27-30, 2015, which aimed to discover candidate exploration zones on Mars. An exploration zone is a collection of regions of interest that are within 100 kilometers of a landing site. Regions of interest are areas that are relevant for scientific research, have development capabilities, and the resources necessary for sustaining human presence. These exploration zones will later be used by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Science Mission Directorate in determining where and how Mars will be explored by humans. The process of choosing an exploration zone includes several parts: identifying locations that would maximize potential science return and resources required to support humans, developing concept and engineering systems needed by future human crews to conduct operations, and identifying key characteristics of the exploration zone that cannot be evaluated using existing data sets.

The locations the team chose are rich in geologic history and exhibit water evidence for astrobiology. The two sites are called Ausonia Cavus and Kasei Valles. Asonia Cavus is a low elevation area in the southern hemisphere of Mars. This site allows for sampling of ancient lava flow basalt rocks, since there major lava channels that flow there, and potentially other extensive lava tube systems. Ausonia Cavus may also be a paleolake with small sediment fans; there is evidence of ice-rich lobate debris (believed to be glaciers) covered with a layer of rocks and dust, which may offer an easily accessible source of water. Kasei Valles is at the lower end of a drainage basin that was partly filled with lava, sediments, and volatiles which has resulted in an enormous and productive regional aquifer. This site also has evidence of several episodes of flooding and possible glacial activity; the observed outflow channels show that the system was active for a significant period of time, which allows for research to be done on the formation of the northern Martian ocean. Therefore, Kasei Valles could provide information on early Martian environmental processes, leading to insight on potential mechanisms of bio-signature preservation.

The UH Hilo team compared their sites to analog sites on Mauna Kea and the Channeled Scablands of Washington so that their peers could compare their candidate exploration zones to other places on earth. Preparations for a human Mars mission will be made in a place much like the site on Mars itself. It is too early to determine which sites NASA will choose, but it is safe to say that the UH Hilo team has a chance at having their sites chosen due to their sound research and reasoning.

Read more information about the Geology program, the Biology program and the Astronomy Program at UH Hilo.

Claire-Ann Niibu-Akau

UH Hilo Business Student Launches Tutoring Program

Claire-Ann Niibu-Akau - College of Business & Economics student

The Delta Sigma Pi Fraternity here at UH Hilo has teamed up with the College of Business and Economics to introduce a new tutoring program for business and economics students. Launched on September 30, 2015, the mentoring and tutoring program offers help in a number of classes required for students pursuing a degree in business or economics. This includes courses such as accounting, economics, statistics, finance, critical thinking, and quantitative business analysis. Before the launch of the new program, students struggled to find resources on campus that could address their tutoring needs.

Senior student Claire-Ann Niibu-Akau, member of both CoBE and DSP, has worked hard to get this program off the ground by recruiting, advertising, and organizing. Niibu-Akau states, “I needed to find good, solid tutors. The students of Delta Sigma Pi really pulled through. They found tutors that could cover all the topics we needed. I jumped in and coordinated with teachers on test dates. They give us materials for the tutors so they’re prepared when students come in with questions.” Often tutors haven’t taken a class in a couple of semesters, and having CoBE professors provide “refreshers” can help the tutors work efficiently with students in need of help.

Getting the word out was another challenge faced by DSP. Niibu-Akau says, “I was already an Accounting tutor and a peer mentor. I already knew students who needed help, so I immediately went to them, and asked that they come...I went to some classes to talk. I e-mailed all of our business teachers, and they made announcements. That helped get the word out.” Now the tutors receive up to 20 students per session, all looking for help in their business classes.

For Delta Sigma Pi, it was important that business and economics students had proper educational resources on campus. “I realized they didn’t have the support they needed. With just a little help, they could do so much better,” says Niibu-Akau.

One of the long-term goals of the program is retention. Business and economics majors must take rigorous courses; as a result, the major has a high drop-out rate in its students. Niibu-Akau attests, “Some students come in totally lost on their subjects. They come in thinking that they aren’t going to pass [their classes]...A main goal was to retain our business majors. A lot of them change majors because they feel it’s too hard, and they don’t get the support they need. I believe that with proper tutoring resources we can increase our numbers and retain the students we have.”

One student, Lara Hughes, is grateful to the CoBE tutoring program for the help it was able to provide her: "I had a finance exam that I was very worried about, but one of the tutors...was very calm and reassuring. He worked through the different chapters with me and I received an A+ on the exam … My exam score would not have been as high, had it not been for the tutor program.”

“These tutors are current students who are taking time to help UH Hilo students. What more can I ask for? ... These great tutors come in and take action. You have a one-on-one conversation. They're open-minded to every question and concern you have. I highly recommend it if you're a business major,” asserts sophomore student Chrystal Tuigamala.

Another student, Anna Liu, also claims the program has helped her to succeed: “The tutors have helped me understand the subjects deeper, or at least break it down enough where I can absorb the materials better, resulting in better grades.”

As the foremost program organizer, Niibu-Akau expresses that her desire to help these students stems from earlier experiences in tutoring and volunteer work. She believes sharing her knowledge with others is an important part of giving back to the community. “I started volunteering when I was in the accounting club. I did beyond the hours, because one student was getting an F...He was desperate for help. He ended up bringing [his grade] up to a B. His teacher said I pulled one out of the grave.” It became clear to Niibu-Akau then, that these students did have the ability to succeed; they just needed the help in getting there.

“Student support services program approached me, and said they didn’t have enough support for business students...students come up to me all the time, asking if there are tutors. It inspired me to do something about it,” Niibu-Akau says.

Niibu-Akau wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all this on her own, however. She knows that a strong group of tutors is what keeps this project afloat. “I’m so fortunate to have found the right tutors. We’ve got good, solid tutors in every area that students needs help with. They’re spot on,” she expresses.

Other volunteers are ready and willing to support the tutor and mentoring program. Lorena de la Cruz, President of Lambda Psi Chapter of Delta Sigma Pi, and volunteer accounting tutor states, “I believe that this tutoring/mentoring program for CoBE students will provide motivation and encouragement to the students. This program provides the student[s] a second home at school.”

For tutor Tehani-Jenae Palolo, the volunteer opportunity was a chance for personal growth. She says, “This experience has made me break out of my comfort zone to benefit the students of CoBE...Even though I'm uncomfortable interacting with other students, seeing them when it finally all clicks and they become more confident in their abilities, makes it all worth it. Breaking out of my comfort zone was one of the best things for me to do. After all, great things never came from comfort zones.”

The tutor mentoring program has made big changes in the lives of UH Hilo students. According to survey results, over 90% of the student participants would recommend the program to a friend; 100% of students rated the program as high quality. 100% of the student participants also reported a greater understanding of the material, and over 75% of students improved their test scores.

Best of all, this mentoring and tutoring program has managed to retain 80% of the students who initially came in planning to change majors.

It’s evident that having a support system here on campus for business and economics students means better scores and higher retention rates. Clearly, this selfless act by the students of Delta Sigma Pi will mean great things for the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, especially the College of Business and Economics.

Read more information about the College of Business & Economics at UH Hilo.