Hilo Science Cafe Stirs Up Fun With Science

February 26, 2018, 9:30 AM HST
* Updated November 8, 11:42 AM
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Dr. William Mautz of UH Hilo answers questions on coqui frogs. PC: Chris Yoakum.

Did you know Hawai‘i is home to the most poisonous fish known to humans? Or that origami has a lot in common with the next generation of space exploration technologies that are seeking out Earth-like planets?

These and other interesting facts were among the talks shared by local scientists during the second Hilo Science Cafe event at Kuku‘au Studio on Saturday evening, Feb. 24. The talk-story-style event joins the public with local researchers to raise awareness on their work, answer common questions and have some fun.

Scientists presented to an audience of more than 50 attendees, covering a variety of topics that included the world’s deadliest toxins, coqui frogs, math phobia, and the surprising parallels between origami and emerging space exploration technologies.

Entomologist Fey VanCamp of the Research Corporation of University of Hawai‘i opened the evening with a good-humored talk on the world of toxicology. Bringing levity to a subject that explores the deadliest toxins known to man, VanCamp queried the audience on their best guesses for the world’s most poisonous snakes, spiders, man-made substances and sea creatures—the latter of which lives in Hawai‘i waters, commonly known as the pufferfish.

Dr. Julien Lozi of Subaru Telescope shared his love for origami, and revealed some surprising parallels between folded paper art and the inner working of the latest advances in telescope optics and spacecrafts designs.


University of Hawai‘i at Hilo student Vanessa Aguirre posed a pointed question to the audience: “What are some things that are scarier than math?” Aguirre scrawled audience responses onto a dry erase board forming a list that included cougars, prison, parenting and dying alone. Aguirre also addressed common anxieties around math, admitting her own fears despite being an avid student of the subject.


“Math is the language of the universe and it can be used to explain everything around us,” she said. “It really is quite beautiful.”

Dr. William Mautz, a conservation biologist and professor of biology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, shared the history and habits of a frog that has become a staple sound in the community: the coqui. Mautz recounted the coqui’s invasion of the Aloha State in the 1980s, and how mounting complaints for the cacophony of chirps voiced by these tiny frogs prompted officials to form a plan to eradicate them—but with little success.

“Like most invasive species problems in Hawai‘i, weʻre just learning to live with it,” said Mautz.


With two events already held, Hilo Science Cafe was conceived and organized by University of Hawai‘i at Hilo alumnus Niki Thomas. Thomas said she launched the event in an effort to create a bridge between the community and local scientists.

“These scientists are a part of our community in such a big way because Hilo’s not that big,” said Thomas. “Thereʻs so many people who donʻt understand what’s happening, what weʻre doing. And there’s so many scientists in this community because Big Island is an amazing place to do science.”

The first Hilo Science Cafe was held at the studio on Nov. 17, 2017. Two more events are already planned for April and June this year. The upcoming cafes—as well as the most recent—are being sponsored by Hawai‘i Farmers and Ranchers United.

“Itʻs more than what I expected,” added Thomas, who has been accepted to a doctoral program to study biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm about this event.”

UH Hilo mathematics student Vanessa Aguirre shows off her “math spirit” before opening a discussion on math anxiety. PC: Chris Yoakum.

Niki Thomas, a UH Hilo alumnus organized and hosted the event. PC: Chris Yoakum.

Hilo Science Cafe attendees talk story during an intermission. PC: Chris Yoakum.

Dr. Julien Lozi of Subaru Telescope holds up an intricate piece of origami art he made. His presentation demonstrated how origami principles are being used in the latest space exploration technologies. PC: Chris Yoakum.

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