SURFers successfully ride the pandemic wave for a unique summer of research

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) launched this year with hopes of giving some promising students the opportunity to participate in climate science research with a university faculty mentor for ten weeks over the summer. Applications came in, possible mentors were contacted, interviews were conducted–and then the COVID-19 shutdown descended and made it all uncertain. Ultimately, three impressive students were lined up with three willing University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa faculty members, and they were able to complete hybrid research projects, all coincidentally addressing various aspects of botanical climate change issues.

An exploration of plant-climate-fire interactions: Ronja Steinbach

Student looks at plants in the field

Invasive plant species often pose harm to endemic ecosystems, particularly when the introduced plants are more susceptible to wildfire than their endemic counterparts. Identifying which plants will be most likely to cause shifts in local fire regimes (or pattern, frequency, and intensity over time) is important for managing landscapes. Working with UH botanist Curt Daehler, Ronja focused on creating a screening process for identifying such fire-prone plants, based on plant data in literature reviews and applying a statistical analysis using R. For a case study, she applied the system on an introduced South African shrub, Ochna serrulata or Mickey Mouse bush, to determine, in conjunction with field observations, areas that might be at future risk. In addition, she helped produce a new island record for the naturalization of O. serrulate which was submitted with a voucher specimen to the Bishop Museum.

Vulnerability of coastal ecosystems to increased salinity from climate change: Taylor Young

An instrument is held against seedling leaves

With continuing climate change, sea-level rise threatens coastal zones with increasingly higher levels of tidal activity and storm-related flooding of saline waters across normally dry stretches of coastline. Knowing the tolerance of coastal plants to saline conditions, then, is critical for evaluating their ability to adapt to these conditions and managing their future success. Often, plants in the supratidal zone are adapted to freshwater conditions, so Taylor’s project, working with UH botanist Kasey Barton, was to explore how these plants would be impacted by increased exposure to both sea water spray and complete immersion. Greenhouse experiments were conducted on seedlings and juvenile plants from three native dune species, treating them with ocean water over a period of time and then allowing them to recover for a while before measuring several physiological characteristics to examine their salinity tolerance. In addition, Taylor began a meta-analysis to examine global patterns of salinity tolerance in coastal plants from the literature.


Evaluating and developing techniques for improving success of reforestation efforts in Hawaiʻi: Nicholas Yos

Close up of experimental watering device

Replanting of native plants and trees is a key component of watershed restoration, but there are several barriers to effective reforestation: seed germination, post-planting irrigation, and sapling mortality rates. Nick’s project, with UH geographer Camilla Mora, tackled all three of these components to different degrees. He explored the efficacy of different methods of aiding seed germination for two key tree species, koa and lonomea: mechanical scarification (physically breaking the seed covering), hot-water soaking, ultrasonic cavitation, and fire. He also constructed an automated field-watering system, tested it in a laboratory setting, but with plans to set it up in the field in coming semesters at a couple test plot sites on Oʻahu. Finally, to address sapling mortality rates, Nick helped design and prepare experiments that will be run in the future to test the efficacy of varying conditions of watering and weed control on the survivability of koa and kou trees in the field.

We were all thoroughly impressed with the science these SURFers were able to accomplish over this summer, and look forward to seeing their progress in future endeavors. As the inaugural year for our SURF program, these students have set the bar high for coming years!