Partnership builds connections at Leeward CC, pathway to geosciences at SOEST

Through a creative collaboration between University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa, Leeward Community College (CC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Leeward CC students are building skills and exploring interests that are preparing them to successfully pursue majors in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) and their future careers. The pathway from Leeward CC to SOEST includes authentic research experiences in coastal ecology and marine science and creating meaningful connections among the students, and between students and professionals. 

Donn Viviani, Leeward CC oceanography instructor and SOEST alum, leads what he calls the Pu’uloa Plankton Party. With mentoring from UH Mānoa graduate student Cassie Ka‘apu-Lyons, and SOEST alum and NOAA researcher Don Kobayashi, students in Viviani’s lab sort fish eggs and larvae from plankton samples collected from waters off O‘ahu. 

Some of the samples were provided by Ka‘apu-Lyons, who is pursuing her doctoral degree from the Marine Biology Graduate Program at UH Mānoa. She has collected plankton samples from sites in Kaneohe Bay, resulting in nearly 30,000 fish larvae. Larval fish collected are being used to examine diet at first-feeding larval stages. Additionally, fish eggs and larvae are being counted and identified to determine species composition, abundance, and seasonal changes in Kaneohe Bay.

“I knew Cassie had a lot of really cool zooplankton samples and that she might need help with sorting them,” said Viviani. “This sounded like a perfect project for the group of interested students I had been working with.”

To supplement the student’s project materials, Kobayashi initially brought NOAA samples that were collected in 2017 aboard NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette doing oceanographic exploration off the coast of leeward O‘ahu. More recently, Kobayashi brought in plankton samples taken from a Bigeye Tuna Initiative research cruise led by Johanna Wren, a SOEST alum and fellow researcher at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. These samples were collected in 2022 as part of a fishery oceanography investigation of potential spawning, nursery, and foraging grounds of bigeye tuna to the far northeast and southeast of the Hawaiian Islands. 

Support for student training 

Viviani, Ka‘apu-Lyons, Kobayashi, Wren, and Barb Bruno, who is a faculty member in the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology in SOEST, got together to bolster and formalize this program. 

Through a variety of sources, including a National Science Foundation workforce development grant awarded to Bruno (NSF/GEO #2022937), the students receive a stipend for their training. Additionally, the mentoring and training continue, and the students, faculty, and professions are building a network that encourages students to continue the next steps of their academic journey.   

“One of the most rewarding aspects of this lab is the ability to conduct and contribute to research as an undergraduate,” said Jessica Aquino. “The lab experiences I participated in provided me with the fundamental skills and knowledge that will guide me towards a career in science and leadership. Additionally, as a student, participating in this lab allowed me to interact with a variety of people and form long-lasting friendships in my pursuit of intellectual development and academic accomplishment. The lab’s influential and encouraging environment provided educational, scientific, and networking opportunities that I would not have imagined as an undergraduate student.”

More than research and academics

The Pu’uloa Plankton Party hosts other activities, too. They have had informal gatherings, a behind-the-scenes tour of Bishop Museum organized by Ka‘apu-Lyons, and workshops related to writing, presentation and poster design, and how to find an advisor or internship. 

“I visited the lab to see the students in action and it’s impressive,” said Bruno. “What’s really amazing is the community that they’ve built. For example, students use the lab as a study space or to take remote classes when they’re not analyzing samples. And, Leeward CC alumni who have transferred to SOEST come back to hang out and share information about SOEST majors.”

“The community the students, Cassie, and Donn created has allowed all of us to have a space where we can learn, collaborate, and just be ourselves,” said Brandon Dela Cruz, Leeward alum and undergraduate in the Global Environmental Science program at SOEST. “I always looked forward to helping out at the lab to learn about the plankton community that surrounds our island while networking with various people from a diverse background. Even after transferring to UH Mānoa, I found myself stopping by to collaborate on different projects with HIMB and NOAA affiliates.”

“We really want to support students in the full spectrum of academic and research experiences,” said Viviani. “We’ve engaged students in continuing the coastal time-series in Pu’uloa at Kapapapuhi Point, offered students an opportunity to collect tap water samples to be screened for jet fuel contamination from the Red Hill Fuel Spill, and opened up opportunities for field projects. We’ve also worked with a microbiology professor at Leeward CC, Helmut Kae, to perform DNA barcoding of samples.”

Networking for the future 

Another step on the path from Leeward CC to UH Mānoa degrees in environmental, earth, and atmospheric science is the SOEST summer bridge. The program, which has been offered eight times since 2013, aims to stimulate interest in earth and ocean science majors and explore career pathways. On the last day of summer bridge, a career mixer offers students an opportunity to interact with science professionals from outside academia to explore career options.  

“Mentoring aspiring scientists is a passion of mine, and it is not always easy to find such an opportunity in my non-academic workplace,” said Kobayashi. “This Leeward CC opportunity allows me to engage with enthusiastic students year-round. And, Leeward CC students have successfully applied for our NOAA summer internship program called PYSO. That intersection is quite fulfilling, and hopefully we are seeing some future NOAA staff in the making!”

“These networking opportunities have helped me to develop strong analytic and lab techniques that helped me be more comfortable and confident in new academic and professional settings,” said Dela Cruz. “There is always a lot going on in Cassie and Donnʻs lab space, they provide many opportunities for their researchers to grow in a variety of projects. I can not thank them enough for the constant support and knowledge they have provided me.”