Hawai'i State News

UH community questions lack of island people in the ocean sciences

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University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa faculty, students and alumni asked the question: “Where are all our island people in the ocean sciences?”

“As descendants of the ocean, the dearth of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in ocean science seems inconsonant,” writes a team of authors in an article published in a special issue of Oceanography called  “Building Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Ocean Sciences.”

Maile mentors and mentees observe the intertidal zone during a full moon. Photo Credit: Kane, et al, 2023.

Article co-author Rosie Alegado, associate professor in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said to understand the root causes of this disparity and potential solutions, UH faculty, staff and students approached this problem through the lens of voyagers.

They examined the past course of history of the peoples of the Pacific and attempted to make headwinds in programs focused on increasing participation in ocean sciences.

The article highlights programs at UH that are aimed at improving pathways for Native Hawaiians in the geosciences, including summer bridge programs, internships and other professional development programs.


In better defining the persistent, systemic and collective barriers that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders face within western society and the academy, the authors identify gaps that conventional professional development programs aimed at minoritized groups in the geosciences have been unsuccessful in filling. 

“Native Hawaiians are often overlooked in the development and leadership of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander-serving programs,” said lead author Haunani Kane, an assistant professor at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. “Programs led by Native Hawaiian scientists and community members ensure that they are culturally centered safe spaces for students to collectively grow their identities as both Native Hawaiians and scientists.”

The SOEST Maile Mentoring Bridge program and the Hilo-based Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Lab (MEGA Lab) are examples of successful programs with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander scientist leadership.

Maile was founded in 2013 with the goal of attracting and retaining more minorities into geoscience degree programs and careers. 


“Looking back on the last 10 years of my life, the Maile Mentoring program has made such a huge impact,” said Maile co-director Diamond Tachera, who also was a co-author of the article. “As an undergraduate student, it was so important for me to see people, especially wāhine (women), who looked like me working and thriving in their scientific fields.”

A Native Hawaiian graduate student surveys reef structure. Photo Credit: Todd Glaser.

To overcome traditional barriers related to retention of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the ocean sciences, the MEGA Lab, a predominantly Native Hawaiian-led lab and nonprofit, developed a research program that prioritizes inclusive research experiences. The MEGA Lab assembled a Native Hawaiian research team to embark on a 15-day voyage to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. 

“That trip inspired me to re-imagine what research looks like when it’s grounded in our ʻōiwi (Native Hawaiian) perspectives and how I can contribute to create more room for that to happen,” said Kainalu Steward, graduate student in the UH Department of Earth Sciences. 

“Moving forward, we believe that in order to make progress in the representation, retainment, and success of Native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders in STEM, we must first address the historical and ongoing traumas of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders through active engagement in reclamation of cultural identities and knowledge,” Kane said. 

An expedition by a Native Hawaiian research team. Photo Credit: Kane, et al., 2023.

In a second article in the special issue of Oceanography, the MEGA Lab founders are calling for a culture change in academia and their “experiment to disrupt the hierarchical and stereotypical structures that exist in science and act as barriers to inclusion.”

“All of the work we do to support Native Hawaiians, women and other underrepresented groups (the fish) can only have limited success given our current toxic workplace culture (the fishbowl),” said Barbara Bruno, faculty specialist at School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and co-author of the first article. “The fishbowl — ​not the fish — ​needs to change.”

For more information, see SOEST’s website.

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