2022 SURFers ride the wave to shore

The end of our third summer fellowship has been a great success! The 2022 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship wrapped up last week with a final hybrid symposium for the students to present their work. For several of them, it was the first opportunity they have had for a formal science presentation, and they all demonstrated their promise well in the preparation, smoothness, and poise of their presentations.

Water flows over a short rocky drop into a pool where a researcher has just sampled the water, while a student sits on the bank with gearSavannah Crosby opened with her project “Which fish live where?” focused on examining how climate change-induced sea-level rise may cause shifts in estuarine fish biodiversity. Based out of the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve (Heʻeia NERR) and supervised by Dr. Shimi Rii and Dr. Fred Reppun, Savannah helped regularly collect and process water samples from 12 sites across the area that will be used for water quality and environmental DNA analyses. By making these collections during regular tidal activity as well as during the high King Tides of the summer months, they hope to evaluate any changes in fish populations alongside water quality parameters. Savannah also helped conduct visual monitoring of native and invasive fish species in the streams that lead to the fishpond, and among other events, she participated in several NERR Laulima restoration activities that benefit the fishpond and strengthen community engagement.

“Most importantly, I learned how to function as part of a lab and as part of a team,” Savannah said. “It was a very wonderful, busy summer!”

Fish swim through deep blue ocean waterJustine Murray’s project also dealt with fish, but was focused on statistical analyses. For her project titled “Effects of marine protected areas (MPAs) on adjacent recreational fisheries,” she was helping with an ongoing project in Dr. Elizabeth Madin’s lab, at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), to evaluate the benefits of protected areas on fish populations in the nearby regions of MPAs. Expanding on previous work from 2001 that looked at just a few species at one Florida MPA, Justine’s project set up the basis for future statistical analyses of world record size catches for 26 reef-associated species near (within 100 km) MPAs around the world. Preliminary results suggest there are significant positive spillover effects near to MPAs, with larger fish of many species.

“I learned a lot this summer,” said Justine. “I got to learn about R, for the first time. I learned a lot about science communication…All things I’ll take with me in my final year as a marine biology undergrad student.”

A student holds a pipet as he adds samples to a machineStryder Williams applied his experience with microbiology for a project in Dr. Michael Rappé’s HIMB lab titled “Predicting the effects of climate change on Synechococcus growth rates.” With marine temperatures climbing, the effects on the smallest ocean inhabitants are critical. Cyanobacteria form the foundation of the marine food web and are critical suppliers of oxygen to the world. Stryder conducted lab experiments to explore whether increasing temperatures benefit or hinder the growth of the Synechococcus cyanobacteria, in order to extrapolate to the effects that climate change may one day have on their global range. Preliminary results suggest that warmer temperatures may actually benefit this group, allowing it to expand its range, which could result in decreases of other phytoplankton species through competition. More experiments are planned to look at the effect of other future climate factors, like greater acidity and CO2 concentrations.

A clump of spiky invasive grassElizabeth Peterson shifted the symposium focus away from the marine setting to botany with her presentation titled “Climate adaptation: Predicting the range shifts of invasive grasses in Hawaiʻi based on their photosynthetic pathways.” Working with Dr. Curt Daehler at UH Mānoa, Lizzie set up models to explore whether grasses with the most recently evolved photosynthetic mechanisms will prove to be the dominant species in a warming world. Using large data sets of where these grasses currently grow globally, Lizzie produced global species distribution models to apply to Hawaiʻi to predict local grass distributions under future climatic conditions. Preliminary results suggest some grasses may experience significant range shifts with climate change, but Lizzie plans to do more definitive tests to establish clear relationships to photosynthetic type for her further Honors thesis work this coming year.

“One special part of this summer was the people I was able to meet by being on campus and being able to network,” said Elizabeth.

A short, narrow koa sapling is surrounded by tall dark green bamboo trunks beyond a small clearingFinally, Pierson Nitz Caldwell finished off the presentations looking at the “Practical reforestation of Acacia koa,” a project he worked on with Dr. Travis Idol from UH Mānoa with the goal of increasing the effectiveness of future koa restoration efforts. He first modeled, and then field tested, optimal sunlight parameters for koa samplings to grow at two differently forested locations on Oʻahu. As koa takes some time to grow, Pierson set up the growth experiments for hundreds of saplings and plans to continue the study in the fall semester with a directed research class to record growth results.

Pierson had a particularly interesting insight that he shared from his summer trials. He found that his scientific process was less of a linear path of “question, hypothesis, experiment, answer” as we are often taught in school, and more of a winding, backtracking path with theoretical ideas having to be reworked over and over when new problems are encountered during the act of putting experimental ideas into practice. “We encountered a problem; then we got a solution; then we had a problem; then we had a solution; and then we had a problem, and it kept going on and on and on, until it got more refined and more specific and we really understood the areas a lot better.”

A very useful experience for a future scientist to learn, as were all the experiences of our 2022 SURFers!


Five undergraduate students pose along a walkway
Our 2022 SURF students pose after finishing their final presentations. (L to R: Justine Murray, Elizabeth Peterson, Justine Murray, Pierson Nitz Caldwell, Stryder Williams)