Apr 202017

Researchers from the UH Cancer Center at UH Mānoa and the College of Pharmacy at UH Hilo are studying how ironweed plant extract can be used to treat breast and brain cancers.

James Turkson holds ironweed plant extract.

James Turkson holds ironweed plant extract.

A year ago, James Turkson, director of the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology Program (UH Mānoa), along with collaborators Leng Chee Chang, Dianqing Sun and Supakit Wongwiwatthananukit at the UH Hilo Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, published a study showing that the natural compounds from the ironweed plant were effective in killing breast cancer and brain tumor cells and blocked the development and growth of these cancers in the laboratory.

Leng Chee Chang

Leng Chee Chang

Now, in recognition of these preliminary findings, the National Cancer Institute has awarded a five-year $3 million grant for the researchers to deepen their study into how natural compounds in ironweed plant extract can be used to treat breast and brain cancers.

Dianqing Sun

Dianqing Sun

“It would be life changing for cancer patients if ironweed extract could help fight aggressive types of breast and brain cancers,” says Turkson. “Since the compounds are found in the plant, they are less toxic than traditional forms of treatment such as chemotherapy. This gives cancer patients a better quality of life when developed as drugs.”

Supakit Wongwiwatthananukit

Supakit Wongwiwatthananukit

Glioblastoma is an aggressive brain cancer that currently has no cure, explains Turkson. In addition, the types of breast cancers the researchers are targeting are some of the most life-threatening breast cancers with few successful treatments.

-Learn more, UH Mānoa media release.

Apr 192017

The goals of the project in Keaukaha go beyond scientific and clinical objectives—the main goal is to help the community and culture surrounding the loko i‘a (fishponds).

By Anne Rivera.
This story is the fourth in a series on climate change research at UH Hilo.

Group photo in front of ocean mural, Cherie Kauahi, Steven Colbert, Kamala Anthony and Jason Adolf.

Research team (l-r) Cherie Kauahi, Steven Colbert, Kamala Anthony and Jason Adolf.

Research projects at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are more than opportunities for students to do applied learning, they are also often geared toward helping communities and culture in Hawai‘i flourish. A perfect example of this is a project run by Kamala Anthony and Cherie Kauahi, two UH Hilo graduate students, who have taken on loko i‘a (fishpond) research in Keaukaha, Hilo, with the help of two marine science faculty advisors, Steven Colbert and Jason Adolf.

Aerial of fishpond

Aerial of fishpond in Keaukaha, now a subject of research conducted by UH Hilo. Click photos to enlarge.

The project is aimed at studying current conditions in several fishponds in Keaukaha in order to restore, sustain and manage them better in the face of climate change. The research team is collecting baseline data from the fishponds—never before collected—to study how future climate change will affect the groundwater flow into the ponds.

But the goals of the project go beyond the scientific and clinical objectives—ultimately the goal is to help the community and culture surrounding the loko i‘a. Members of the research team each have their own community connections to Keaukaha and a sense of obligation to help the loko i‘a and the local culture.

Anthony and Kauahi are both graduate students in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program at UH Hilo and have a deep, personal connection with this research project beyond the student level.

Aerial of Fishpond

Aerial of Honokea fishpond at Richardson Ocean Park, Keaukaha.

Anthony is originally from Waiuli in the Keaukaha area. She attended UH Hilo for her undergraduate degree in agriculture with a specialty in aquaculture and later moved on to the TCBES graduate program. She says she feels much like the fish who enter the fishpond where the research is being conducted—she says her motivation for doing this project is because she, too, “seeks nourishment, growth, support, function, skills and the potential to pass on these processes to the next generation for the protection of a resource that sustains the community.”

Kauahi was raised on Hawai‘i Island. She completed her undergraduate studies at UH Hilo and earned a bachelor of arts in marine science. She says her overall goal of this current project is to provide the people who mālama (care for) these places added information to continue to perpetuate loko iʻa pratices as well as to ultimately provide food for the people who depend on loko iʻa resources.

“I’m learning a lot about groundwater and how complex it is as well as learning different techniques on how to look at it and measure it,” she says. “Most importantly I’m learning about wai [water] not just in the context of science but in the context of a Hawaiian and recognizing that wai is life.”

Aerials of two fishponds

Aerials of road into Keaukaha with (left) Waiahole fishpond on mauka side of road and (right) Hale o Lono fishpond on makai side of road with wall of fishpond visible. Bing Maps.

Wai is life: Linking culture and science

Both graduate students are taking away more than just the technical skills with their work on this project—rather they are learning how to join their passion for community and culture in Hawai‘i with the techniques and applicability of science. Project advisor Adolf, an associate professor of marine science, says he likes seeing students make the linkage between the two.

“I’d like to see the scientific part be as meaningful as well as be interactive with the community and outreach steps,” he says.

Adolf is originally from New Jersey. He received his master of science in botany from UH Mānoa and his doctor of philosophy biological oceanography from the University of Maryland. He worked on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay after gaining his PhD and made his way back to the islands in 2008 when he joined the faculty at UH Hilo.

Because Adolf’s specialty is in water quality and phytoplankton, he is the faculty advisor on the current fishpond project. He has known Anthony for about five years and has watched her come up through her undergraduate program—he has seen her passion and focus on lokoi‘a restoration, which was part of his motivation to join the research team.

Adolf says his favorite part about the research projects on campus is working with the students to help them write their thesis.

“The real satisfaction is using the data to generate information,” he explains. “The process of analyzing data to tell a story and yield information is my favorite part because it gives the research context and the students’ hard work purpose.”

Colbert, an associate professor of marine science, also serves as advisor for Anthony and Kauahi and helped write the proposal for this project because he has his own connections to the community of Keaukaha.

“One of the biggest goals of this project is to provide information about the hydrology of these fishponds that is useful to the community,” says Colbert. “Keaukaha is the community in Hilo where we are and spend so much of our time, so we owe them.”

Colbert is from Indiana and received his master of science in geology and doctor of philosophy in geology from the University of Southern California. While in California he studied groundwater hydrology in the coastal ocean, which is what he continues to do in Hawai‘i. He joined the UH Hilo faculty in 2010 and has developed a deep connection to the ‘āina (land) and takes joy in giving back to a community that he feels has done so much for him and his students.

Leadership for the future

Funding for the fishpond research is from the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center at UH Hilo.  The center is a partnership between U.S. Geological Survey and a university consortium that includes UH Mānoa (the consortium lead) and University of Guam, in addition to UH Hilo.

In discussing the ultimate project goal, Anthony says, “It is to produce a piece of information or a resource that will contribute to the protection and well-being of the resources that we depend on in Hawai‘i, and in doing so will allow for a combination of scientific approaches and ancestral knowledge of the people who have an intimate relationship with these resources.”

She says she plans to continue the work she does with the loko i‘a restoration through a non-profit organization known as Hui Ho‘olei Maluo to support and guide loko i‘a restoration efforts.

Although she is a first-year graduate student, Kauahi is already starting to plan for after graduation. She says she is looking to take a year off before possibly continuing on to earn her doctorate or she may immediately go to work protecting water resources.

Applied learning for students is fundamental in research projects at UH Hilo—however, connecting classroom learning and field work to the communities outside UH Hilo is vital to the success of the students.

On the various skills Anthony and Kauahi have been gaining through the fishpond research, Colbert says, “Technical skills are the number one thing but leadership experience is second because that’s where our master’s students and graduates are going—TCBES graduates are going to take on these leadership roles and they often end up in leadership roles across Hawai‘i.”

This story was edited for clarification after further input from the students.


About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (junior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories


Also in this series:

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Monitoring the coasts for signs of erosion and planning ahead

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Tree rings and bird song

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Collecting data on forests and trees

Mar 152017

Dean of UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture says there are few annual crops where a farmer can recover costs of high fertilizer and soil amendment inputs required for desired yields coupled with disease and pests in this environment.

By Bruce Mathews.

Bruce Mathews

Bruce Mathews

On January 9, the Hawaiʻi Island Food Alliance Food Access Working Group, together with The Food Basket, The Kohala Center, and the state Department of Health, hosted a presentation in Hilo by Ken Meter (president of the Cross-roads Resource Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota) that was entitled “Growing Secure Food Systems in Hawaiʻi”. The presentation focused on how the pre-European contact native Hawaiians were completely food independent and that the 1900s resulted in a downward spiral in food production in Hawaiʻi, which was particularly rapid from the 1940s onward. The mid 1960s was the last time that about half the food consumed in Hawaiʻi was produced here. The stated goal was to instigate change that results in greatly improved food independence on the Big Island. There was even quite a bit of discussion regarding community-based food systems and avoiding the cash-based economy, and doing food barter.

One of the major challenges was that there was no real discussion of the biophysical and social constraints that would need to be overcome. When I pointed out that Native Hawaiians largely farmed the fertile alluvial valley soils and sweet spot uplands where rainfall was sufficient to grow sweet potato, etc., but not so excessive to result in heavy nutrient losses (soil fertility depletion) by leaching I was told that one can use soil restorative rotations of certain (undefined) legumes to make the former sugarcane lands of the high rainfall Hilo-Hamakua Coast productive for food crops. I politely implied that this thinking was delusional and backed up by scientific evidence regarding the very limited potentials of biological uplift of nutrients and nitrogen-fixing green manures in high rainfall zones with heavily leached soils.

On the infertile upland soils in high rainfall zones the Native Hawaiians practiced slash and burn agriculture with short annual (usually one to two crop) cropping periods and very long fallows or plantings of tree crops such as breadfruit. Long fallows are not practical in the modern era. Neither is expansion of wetland and gulch taro production as most of the fallow areas are now zoned for conservation to protect wetland habitat and wildlife. In this regard it is interesting to note that the waterfowl of concern seemed to survive when Native Hawaiians and then immigrants from Asia cropped the valleys and gulches wall to wall with taro, had extensive aquaculture, and later also grew rice. Furthermore, it is problematic that most of the sweet spot uplands with high soil fertility that were formerly used largely for sweet potato cultivation are presently under the tropical grass pastures of the large privately held ranches. These lands are unlikely to be converted to row-cropped field systems and would require major irrigation infrastructure development to avoid the risk of crop failure during droughts that have become more frequent with climate change.

There is a reason that most of the former rain-fed sugarcane lands on the Big Island are now used for perennial pasture and tree crops that are not as nutrient demanding in terms of soil fertility as most annual agronomic and vegetable crops. In a large part it’s that there are few annual crops where the farmer can recover the costs of the high fertilizer and soil amendment inputs required for the desired yields coupled with the multitude of introduced disease and pest problems in this environment. To make matters worse, applied nitrogen and potassium fertility is rapidly leached away necessitating frequent reapplication. Due in part to the soil fertility constraints and cost of the available lands and labor we are not going to be growing staple crops in major quantities anytime soon.

Some keys to improving food independence are as follows: 1) developing viable strategies to recover essential plant nutrients from the human waste stream in order to reduce dependence on imported fertilizers, 2) designing novel controlled-release and extender fertilizers such as those based on colloidal ion exchangers (exchange fertilizer technology) for more efficient nutrient delivery in the humid tropics, 3) encouraging and facilitating state and federal professionals in horticulture and agronomy to conduct the scientifically non-glamorous but essential work of germplasm evaluation that includes crop nutrient use efficiency and pest-disease resistance parameters, 4) improving the opportunities for people interested in becoming farmers to have relevant training on commercial scale farming practices, and 5) educating people on the multifaceted components of successful rural entrepreneurship.

Bruce Mathews is dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at UH Hilo. His areas of research are plant nutrient cycling and soil fertility; assessment of the impact of agricultural and forestry production practices on soil, coastal wetlands, and surface waters; and nutrient management practices for pastures, forests, and field crops in the tropics (learn more about his research). He received his bachelor of science in agriculture, with high honors, from UH Hilo in 1986. He received his master of science in agronomy from Louisiana State University and his doctor of philosophy in agronomy, with a minor in animal science, from the University of Florida. Contact.


This column was originally posted at Nihopeku, a blog about UH Hilo’s work toward food security on Hawaiʻi Island.

Mar 142017

UH Hilo researchers believe the biggest challenge that Hawaiian tree species will face in the future is how quickly they will get water, especially in higher temperatures.

By Anne Rivera.
This story is the second in a series on climate change research at UH Hilo.

Joanna Norton and Prof. of Biology Becky Ostertag stand together in a garden.

(l-r) UH Hilo graduate student Joanna Norton and Prof. of Biology Becky Ostertag. Photo by Zoe Coffman.

Scientists at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are tackling climate change issues with numerous research projects focusing on a variety of target areas ranging from testable theories to the collection of data. In many of the projects UH Hilo faculty, graduate students, and island resource managers are working together to conduct important collaborative research focused on building the community’s ability to adapt to future climate and land use changes.

Professor of Biology Becky Ostertag leads two such projects—a long-term forest research project with many partners across the Hawaiian islands, and a separate research study with graduate student Joanna Norton. Both projects link established and potential problems related to our forests to further help scientists and island resource managers understand the effects of climate change on the island’s environment.

Forest studies

Ostertag’s project, called the Hawai‘i Permanent Plot Network or HIPPNET, is the deployment of permanent research sites across Hawai‘i that track various factors in Hawaiian forests—the birth and death of trees, growth rates, species and so forth—all monitored with the data compiled together like an information packet. This comprehensive history helps to evaluate how Hawaiian species respond to climate fluctuations and allows researchers to make predictions about how Hawaiian forests will do with long term climate change. The collected field data relates to climate change by linking factors such as minimum and maximum temperatures, rainfall, solar radiation, soil moisture and wind speed.

The biggest issue that Hawaiian species will face is how quickly they will get water, especially in higher temperatures, Ostertag explains.

“Water is going to become an important issue with climate change,” she says.

Prof. Ostertag earned her bachelor of arts in biology from Carleton College in Northfield, MN, and later received her doctor of philosophy in botany from the University of Florida in Gainesville. At UH Hilo, she teaches, leads her own research projects, and chairs and advises students in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science graduate program as she is with Joanna Norton.

Ostertag’s HIPPNET project is a collaboration with the Institute of Pacific Island Forestry of the USDA Forest Service, the University of California-Los Angeles, and UH Mānoa, and has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Pacific Southwest Research Station of the USDA Forest Service, and the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center based at UH Hilo.

Logos of the various agencies supporting the HIPPNET project.

The HIPPNET project is a collaborative research project with support from a cross section of agencies. Click to enlarge.

Additional funding from the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center allows Ostertag and fellow researchers to investigate sapflow, the rate in which trees take up water.

Albizia studies

Norton’s research is part of the UH Hilo collaborations with the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center that link graduate students, agency and community natural resource managers and faculty to focus on today’s challenges related to climate change.

Norton’s project focuses primarily on alternative agricultural methods investigating the use of an invasive albizia tree species (Falcataria moluccana), found here on Hawai‘i Island, as an alternative fertilizer.

Agriculture is one of the biggest influences in climate change—carbon dioxide and methane gas are contributors, however nitrous oxide is the biggest component.

“It is a much more powerful greenhouse gas and it’s coming out of agricultural fields which makes it reactive,” Norton explains.

Oftentimes agricultural gas emitted from the fertilizers is not mentally registered because it is considered routine and regular agriculture.

Norton’s research project includes the collection of albizia trees which are chipped, composted and then spread across agricultural lands ranging from Hilo to Kohala. After the composted albizia trees are dispersed across these agricultural plots, Norton will compare it to chemical fertilizers by analyzing differences in plant growth, soil and plant nutrient levels, and soil water holding capability.

A large pile of wood chips and an orange tree trimming truck in a horse pasture, a black and white horse looks on.

UH Hilo graduate student Joanne Norton’s research project includes the collection of albizia trees, which are chipped, composted and then spread across agricultural lands ranging from Hilo to Kohala. Photo by J. Norton.

Norton originally hails from Washington, DC, but has spent half her life in Hawai‘i. She earned a bachelor of science in biology from UH Hilo, and is now earning a master of science at the university’s Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program.

She says she came back to school after being in the “work world” and continues to work with various employers conducting agricultural experiments. Her research project is similar to her work, however, she is given the freedom to design the agricultural question.

“Here at UH Hilo, I am learning the latest research on agriculture, invasive species, and climate change, which gives my work context,” she says. “I’m learning how to ask and answer questions in a scientific way as well as learning the logistics and planning that goes into a research project.”

By designing and implementing her own research project, Norton is gaining more than just answers to untested questions—she is learning useful and applicable techniques and information that will help her understand climate change and how adjustments might be made to adjust or prevent these fluctuations.

Partnerships and collaborations

Norton’s agricultural investigations also interfaces with the HIPPNET forest research project, which is in collaboration with a worldwide network called the Center for Tropical Forest Science—projects involved with this network use similar tools for data analysis, which allows for cross-site studies. These cross-site studies show how Hawaiian forests compare to other tropical forests and some temperate forests across the globe.

A map of the world showing the countries participating in The Center for Tropical Forest Science global network.

The UH Hilo HIPPNET project is part of The Center for Tropical Forest Science – Forest Global Earth Observatory (CTFS-ForestGEO), a global network of forest research plots and scientists dedicated to the study of tropical and temperate forest function and diversity. The multi-institutional network comprises over 60 forest research plots across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, with a strong focus on tropical regions. CTFS-ForestGEO monitors the growth and survival of approximately 6 million trees and 10,000 species. Click photo to enlarge. Source.

This ability to compare Hawaiian forests and species with the outside world influences Norton’s project. Norton’s project compares a variety of factors, one of which includes the albizia tree fertilizer’s ability to retain water. The HIPPNET plot project’s observations and data analyses show that the water intake rate of Hawaiian tree species means there is a need for alternative fertilizer options. Norton is researching and testing one of many purposed alternative methods.

Norton’s work is funded by the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center, which works in conjunction with managers and scientists from a collaborative agency called the Big Island Invasive Species Committee. Norton’s partnership with BIISC—part of the Manager Climate Corps—is to ensure that her research is applicable to the community—invasive species have become a hard-pressing problem on the island because the invaders force competition between native and invasive species for limited resources and nutrients.

Norton looks forward to continuing her work in agricultural research after graduation. She wants to combine her “on-the-ground skills with the expertise and scientific perspective.”

“Whether my work is primarily in agriculture, land conservation, or climate science, I hope to use my positions to take a multidisciplinary systems approach that is concerned with the entire situation,” she says.

This post was updated on 3/16/2017 to include more details about community partnerships and research projects.


About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (junior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories


Also in this series:

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Fishpond management and restoration

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Monitoring the coasts for signs of erosion and planning ahead

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Tree rings and bird song

Mar 142017

Keiki K. C. Kawaiʻaeʻa will discuss indigenous well-being with strategies and insights to consider as it applies to education in Hawaiʻi, teacher education and accreditation.

International topics speaker series (3rd Thursday of each month).

Keiki Kawaiʻaeʻa

Keiki Kawaiʻaeʻa

TITLE: Indigenous Well-Being through Education
SPEAKER: Keiki K. C. Kawaiʻaeʻa, Director, Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language.
DATE: Thursday, March 16, 2017.
TIME: 7:00 p.m.
PLACE: Lumi Pahiahia at Haleʻōlelo, College of Hawaiian Language, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (campus map).

Free and open to the general public and UH community.


At the center of our life spirit is mauli. Much like a flame, the vitality of mauli can be seen as an illuminating light or a flicker of a struggling flame. Education can transform lives and serves as a critical context for cultivating a sense of well-being (mauli ola). This presentation will provide a framework for indigenous well-being and some applied examples, strategies and insights to consider as it applies to education in Hawaiʻi, teacher education and accreditation.


The United Nations Association USA-Hawaii Island Chapter and the UH Hilo International Student Services & Intercultural Education Program.


Jim Mellon.

Feb 222017

The scientists are developing a method known as Incompatible Insect Technique, using a bacteria to prevent male mosquitoes from reproducing.

To protect Hawaiʻi’s unique, imperiled native birds, researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and UH Hilo are teaming up with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adapt a “birth control” method used across the U.S. mainland to control mosquitoes. The scientists are taking the first steps to adapt a safe, targeted and efficient mosquito control method known as Incompatible Insect Technique to reduce the population of the disease-carrying mosquitoes that harm native birds in Hawaiʻi.

Incompatible Insect Technique acts like a birth control method for mosquitoes and it has already been adopted and proven successful around the country and the world to protect human health and quality of life. A similar method has been used in Hawaiʻi for decades to control fruit fly pests which are harmful to local agricultural products.

Mosquitos are a nuisance and a hazard both to people and to Hawaiʻi’s native birds, which are in danger of extinction from decades of habitat loss, predation and diseases like avian malaria and avian pox.

“We are already seeing the loss on Kauaʻi of the safe havens of higher elevation forests for our native birds,” says Cynthia King, an entomologist with DLNR. “Mosquito-spread diseases are decimating bird populations and if we do nothing we could lose several more species in the next 10 years.”

Just one of the six types of mosquitoes found in Hawaiʻi harms native birds—Culex quinquefasciatus. Scientists and conservationists are working together to use a bacteria that is naturally-occuring in fruit flies in Hawaiʻi. It is called Wolbachia bacteria, and the research, which will be done in controlled laboratory settings, involves giving the male mosquitoes a different strain of the bacteria than is normally found in them, to prevent them from producing offspring. To reproduce, most mosquitoes carry a type of this Wolbachia bacteria in their system. When male mosquitoes with the different strain of the bacteria try to mate with females, there are no offspring.

“The process for mosquitoes is very similar to techniques that have been used for many decades in Hawaiʻi to control pest fruit flies for the benefit of agriculture,” says King. “It doesn’t eradicate the insect, but helps to safely reduce the population on a landscape scale without the use of pesticides and without harming any other species.”

Read more about the efforts to reduce the mosquito population.


-A Department of Land and Natural Resources news release via UH System News.

Feb 212017

Professor of Biology Patrick Hart and his research team are studying the endemic māmane tree and palila bird to learn how to predict future environmental changes.

By Anne Rivera. Photos of Hart Lab by Zoe Coffman.
This story is the first in a series on climate change research at UH Hilo.

Above, Prof. Patrick Hart with Shea Uehana, a graduate student in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Sciences Program. Below, some of their work with māmane in Hart Lab. Photos in lab by Zoe Coffman, click to enlarge.


Climate change is on everyone’s radar and the need to figure out the environmental impacts caused by human consumption has been pushing the scientific community. Several research projects stimulated, conducted, and maintained at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are working on this challenge by focusing on innovative methods and ideas that contribute to that field of study and expertise.

There are various research projects around campus that allow students and faculty to work side by side on incredible climate change studies.

Patrick Hart, professor and chair of biology at UH Hilo, has kick-started a few projects in his department that have been ongoing for years.

“We are in a very key place for looking at climate change issues and looking at issues related to biodiversity,” says Hart. “We have this extinction crisis going on in Hawai’i while being in this incredible region of diverse plant and animal species which is fascinating. This dendrochronology research is instrumental in how we will predict future climate shifts on all levels along with being able to prepare for these changes while preserving some of our world’s most amazing plants and animals.”

The dendrochronology project Hart refers to is the study of core samples from indigenous trees on the island of Hawai‘i. His tree ring research project has been in production for almost ten years.

The current research is made possible through the National Science Foundation Centers for Research Excellence in Science and Technology or CREST program now in its fourth year at UH Hilo and funding from the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center.

Tree rings

Various graduate students have worked on this research alongside Hart, contributing to substantial strides in the science community. Shea Uehana is the current graduate student involved on the project—before him, Kainana Francisco and Tishanna Ben also partook in this inquiry.

Tree rings are used in a variety of ways—they are used to calculate the age of a tree, climate conditions throughout the lifespan of the plant, health of the soil, previous precipitation, etc. The rings on a tree develop at the end of an annual year in the life of the plant and tends to be produced in trees that experience a range of the four seasons.

Dendrochronology is the science of dating events in the environment in former periods by comparative study of growth rings in trees and aged wood. These māmane specimens are ready for study in Hart Lab, UH Hilo. Click photo to enlarge.

Until very recently, it was believed that trees native to and living in tropical climates did not produce rings or did not produce them at the same frequency or accuracy as others in non-tropical climates.

However, Uehana and Hart have discovered that some indigenous trees and nonnative trees surviving in Hawai‘i do in fact produce rings in areas of high elevation. According to Hart, the most surprising thing was finding annual rings in a tropical tree in Hawai‘i.

“We thought it was unusual but then found some nonnative trees planted by ranchers a long time ago, like cedar and different kinds of pine, lay annual rings here,” he explains. “They’ve taken that behavior from the continental United States and kept that annual growth behavior.”

The Hart Lab has dozens of core samples to date and evaluate—the research team’s goal is related to climate change but more specifically to prevention and preservation.

“One of our main goals as an ecology lab is to find out how to preserve species,” says Hart. “We are interested in finding out how long it takes to restore certain trees. This study gives us information on how fast they grow, how old they get, and how long it takes them to mature and be useful.”

They are using tree rings to obtain paleoclimatic data because in some areas of Hawai‘i there is only history as recent as the 1960s.

Uehana says, “In order to understand the way climate change will affect things in the future you need to look at things in the past.”

There is no good record of how climate has varied over time in the Pacific so taking the chronology further back to get a better understanding of how climate has been changing will be beneficial to predicting large scale environmental cycles.

Uehana uses the example of El Nino and La Nina.

“If you can more accurately predict how severe an El Nino or La Nina cycle will be then you can better prepare,” he says.

The māmane and the palila

Palila (Loxioides bailleui). Photo by Jack Jeffery, USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. Click to enlarge photos.

Hart also conducts bird research that uses algorithms to identify bird songs and sounds, which allows scientists and researchers to identify birds in a particular area by just sound alone. The preservation of the endemic palila (Loxioides bailleui) bird is one of the focuses of this research.

The māmane (Sophora chrysophylla), an endemic tree, provides food and habitat for the palila, hence the spawn of the tree ring research project.

Māmane (Sophora chrysophylla). Photo credit Forest and Kim Star.

“This tree ring study has farther reaching impacts beyond environmental, it is also ecological,” says Uehana. “This study can help us learn how to predict things in the future. If we know the next ten years will be drought years and we know that the optimum conditions for the māmane are just the opposite, then we can deduce that it will not only be a bad decade for the māmane but also a bad decade for the palila.”

The usefulness of prediction, Uehana says, is being able to take measures to counteract the bad cycles.

Hart says he loves working and mentoring students as well as watching them go on to be successful after they graduate and over time. He says true joy is seeing them become impactful on some level. The graduate students previously working on the tree ring project have their findings being published—Francisco has been published in the peer reviewed journal Tropical Ecology (“Annual rings in a native Hawaiian tree, Sophora chrysophylla, on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi“), while Ben has a study being published later this year.

This post was updated on Feb. 25, 2017 to include information on funding.


Anne Rivera (junior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

Zoe Coffman (senior, art) is a photography intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories


Also in this series:

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Fishpond management and restoration

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Collecting data on forests and trees

Climate change research at UH Hilo: Monitoring the coasts for signs of erosion and planning ahead

Feb 152017

During the seven-month fellowship in Washington, DC, Prof. Belt will evaluate political humor in the context of presidential campaigns and its influence on the information environment available to voters.

By Susan Enright.

Main reading Hall at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Todd Belt

A political science professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has been awarded the prestigious John W. Kluge Fellowship in Digital Studies for 2017. The fellowship will put Prof. Todd Belt in residence at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, from May to December of 2017.

The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress awards the Kluge Fellowship in Digital Studies to researchers to examine the impact of the digital revolution on society, culture and international relations using the library’s collections and resources.

“My project evaluates how political humor in the context of presidential campaigns influences the information environment available to voters,” explains Belt. “I am particularly interested in what differences exist between information environments prior to and after the internet revolution, which gives the common citizen a greater hand, for better or worse in shaping what we learn about candidates and their policies.”

During the past few years, Belt has conducted research on internet communication and presidential campaigns, with a particular focus on the difference between citizen-generated content and commercially-generated content.

“The archives at the Library of Congress, particularly the National Digital Newspaper Program, gives me access to a vast database for analysis of the role of political humor in the information environment prior to the digital revolution,” says Belt. “These data will be combined for analysis with my ongoing collection of post-internet revolution digital media in order to inform my current book manuscript on political humor and presidential campaigns.”

Belt teaches courses at UH Hilo on “Congress and the Presidency” as well as “Politics, Media and Public Opinion” that relate directly to the area of research he’ll be conducting during his fellowship. He also teaches a “Methods of Research” course, which will further benefit from his hands-on research utilizing the cutting-edge archives of the Library of Congress.

Belt received his master of arts and doctor of philosophy in political science from the University of Southern California. He received the University of Hawai‘i Frances David Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2008.

More about Prof. Belt’s research and books.


About the author: Susan Enright is a public information specialist in the Office of the Chancellor. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

-UH Hilo Stories.

Feb 102017

Students are analyzing past and present cosmologies, discussing relationships between astrophysical and non-astrophysical perspectives, and placing them into historical, cultural, and personal context.

By Susan Enright.
This story is part of a series on new courses offered this semester.


Cathy Ishida

In a new course at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, students are studying and analyzing Maunakea as a contemporary place of contrasting world views. Cosmos and Culture (ASTR 381/394) delves into historical, intellectual, social, and cultural context of astronomical discovery from a multitude of perspectives including the exploration of both scientific and nonscientific cosmologies.

Students in the class are exploring the skills and knowledge astronomers need—in addition to astronomy—to engage constructively in conversations about the past, present, and future of Maunakea.

The course invites students to inquire deeply into the historical, intellectual, social, and cultural context of astronomy as a field of study, asking students to investigate topics such as cultural astronomy, the philosophy of science, the history of astronomy, Hawaiian studies, cultural studies and other fields.

“I hope stepping back and evaluating the big picture, whether it’s the cosmology of a particular culture, the scientific enterprise, or their own lives, will become a habit for students in this course,” says Catherine Ishida, who is teaching the class.

Ishida, who moved to Hilo in 2002 to work at Subaru Telescope, where she did research on interactions among galaxies and how they contribute to the evolution of galaxies over time, used her fluency in English, Japanese and astronomy to contribute to the observatory’s public information and outreach.

Ishida received her doctor of philosophy in astronomy from UH Mānoa in 2004. In 2007, she interrupted her work in astronomy to become an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, a multi-religious humanist faith.

Since returning to Hilo in 2011, she has been teaching at the UH Hilo Department of Physics and Astronomy and consulting with local congregations “teaching practical philosophy and impractical physics.”

“Just as people have looked at the same sky for ages and came up with different interpretations, the same facts can have different meanings for different people,” she explains. “Science majors in particular have few opportunities in their curriculum to examine how such differences affect the content and context of their field of study. I hope the course helps students better negotiate those differences in personal, professional and communal settings.”


Ishida says a key component of the new course is having students devise questions, invite conversation, and listen deeply to learn how astronomical and non-astronomical cosmologies inform people’s lives in Hawaiʻi today.

The course focuses on three areas: cultural astronomy, the scientific revolution, and cosmos and culture in contemporary Hawai‘i.

From the course description:

Introduction to Cultural Astronomy: After a basic review of fundamental skills necessary for successful cross cultural encounters, we’ll take a look at the variety of ways people have related to the sky through the naked eye prior to the wide dissemination of the Newtonian worldview.

The Scientific Revolution: Several developments began in the 15th century: global economic unification, technological and political dominance by Western Europeans, and a mechanistic worldview justified by the success of new ways of making truth claims. We’ll review basic concepts in the philosophy of science and apply them to close readings of the biographies of “iconic heroes of science.”

Cosmos and Culture in Contemporary Hawaiʻi: We’ll take a look at astrophysical cosmologies and non-astrophysical cosmologies that are alive in Hawaiʻi today by talking to people who live and promote them. Specific topics will include Hawaiian cosmology and star lore in the Hula traditions, Hawaiian wayfinding, developments in astrophysical research, and the institutions that sustain each of these.

Synthesis: We’ll apply what we learned throughout the semester to our own understanding of Maunakea as a contemporary locus for contrasting world views.

By the end of the course, Ishida says students will be able to describe a variety of past and present cosmologies, discuss relationships between astrophysical and non-astrophysical cosmologies, and place them into historical, cultural, and personal context. Students will also be able formulate a nuanced definition of science that reflects its complex realities.

“There are many issues that can be deeply personal, technical, and controversial in the local community,” she says. “The future of Maunakea is an obvious example, but there are other issues such as the future of agriculture and tourism. I hope that students will become skillful catalysts for meaningful conversation in the local community and beyond.”


Also in this series on new courses

New microbiology course at UH Hilo gives students holistic view of the environment

New course prepares fourth-year pharmacy students for comprehensive exam

New course at UH Hilo focuses on agricultural and food tourism


About the author of this series: Susan Enright is a public information specialist in the Office of the Chancellor. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

-UH Hilo Stories.

Feb 082017

New faculty and staff were welcomed to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo campus at the 2017 Campus Spring Welcome event Feb. 3, 2017.


(l-r) Alan Koahou, Roxanne Levinson, and Russ Blunk at the welcome event.


  • Russ Blunk, Sports Information Director.
  • Roxanne Levinson, Athletics Compliance Officer.

Office of Equal Employment and Affirmative Action

  • Alan Koahou, Compliance Officer.

Academic Affairs

College of Arts and Sciences

  • Etta Karth, Lab Coordinator.

College of Continuing Education and Community Service

  • Sara Hayashi, Summer Session Support Specialist.

Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy

  • Xiaohua Wu, Biological Research Specialist.

College of Hawaiian Language

  • Darlene Lehua Miller, Office Assistant IV.

Administrative Affairs

  • Brian Hill, Construction Manager.
  • Clayton Kenui, Janitor II.
  • Robin Marie Mehan, Janitor II.
  • Kaiden Ogawa, Janitor II.

Student Affairs

  • Rachel Loo, Native Hawaiian Student Development Coordinator.

Learn more: Individual bios and photos of all newcomers in the February issue of the Ka Lono Hanakahi faculty newsletter.