East Hawaii News

Fellowship Named for Big Island Botanist Lani Stemmermann

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A fellowship has been created at the University of Hawaii to honor the late Ruth Leilani Stemmermann, a botanist and champion of plant protection and preservation on the Big Island and in Hawaii.

The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly is creating the Dr. Lani Stemmermann Endowed Fellowship to support graduate students pursuing a doctorate’s degree in botany at UH-Manoa’s College of Natural Sciences.

Stemmermann, who was born in Hilo, did her master’s thesis on Hawaiian sandalwood, and continued her dedication to Hawaii’s plants throughout her productive but short academic career.

After receiving her Ph.D. in botanical sciences from UH in 1986, she began teaching there and at Hawaii Community College in Hilo.

While teaching courses in plant ecology, biology and environmental sciences, Stemmermann honed her passion for field work and advocacy involving Hawaii’s vegetation and landscape.

After learning about threats to rare plants at the Pohakuloa Training Area, she sued the Army for greater protections. Although she did not prevail in court, the military eventually complied with her concerns.

“Rare Plants of Pohakuloa Training Area,” an extensive survey of the botany of the military installation in the Big Island’s saddle, was dedicated to her.

The author of the survey, Robert B. Shaw of the Center for Ecological Management of Military Lands at Colorado State University, noted that Stemmermann, Charlie Lamoureux and Rick Warshauer were the first to report the existence of the rare plants at PTA.

“Lani and I rarely agreed on how best to protect the rare biota at the installation,” the dedication said, “however, I never doubted the purity of her motives nor her commitment to protecting the plants and habitats she loved.”

The survey was published in 1997, two years after Stemmermann’s death from lymphoma at the age of 42.

Lani Stemmermann. UHPA photo.

Lani Stemmermann, the namesake for a new University of Hawaii botany fellowship. Photo courtesy of UHPA.

Stemmermann collaborated with Stanford University on “Ecosystem Dynamics in Hawai‘i,” a 1990 National Science Foundation project. It resulted in the establishment of a “common garden” – now known as the Stemmermann Common Garden – for the study of native rain forest trees, which was an extension of her dissertation research.

UHPA officials said the garden exemplified her efforts to understand and preserve Metrosideros polymorpha or ohia, the state’s dominant rain forest tree on all islands and habitats.

The fellowship’s initial $204,000 funding is being provided by David Duffy, a UH botany professor who serves as president of UHPA, the university’s faculty’s union.

According to J.N. Musto, UHPA’s executive director, Duffy is donating the funds in lieu of taking a part-time leave of absence.

This truly represents an extraordinarily generous act by David, and an expression of collaboration between the Botany Department, the dean, and the union,” Musto said in a statement.

“Lani believed that Hawai‘i’s species and natural environment merited both research and conservation and she combined the two, setting an example that inspires today,” Duffy said.

“This fellowship celebrates her legacy in academia, just as the endangered palila and silverswords of Big Island endure as legacies of her advocacy on their behalf,” he said.

UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple said the fellowship “ensures Lani’s passion lives on in perpetuity through the lives and work of future botanists.”

For information, or to support the students and programs in the College of Natural Sciences, contact Tim Szymanowski at 808-956-0843 or [email protected]

***Updated Wednesday, April 23, to credit photographer Dina Kageler.***


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