Category Archives: Science

It Takes A Community

It’s been a busy few days.

Last Wednesday evening, Don Thomas, a geologist from UH Hilo, accompanied me to a meeting of the Keaukaha Community Association where he described two drilling projects. The first was a 3,000 ft. or so pilot hole sunk by the Hilo breakwater. It was a test to see if the concept of drilling to acquire a profile of the land was feasible. The second was a much deeper hole on the National Guard side of the Hilo airport. This was a part of a National Science Foundation-funded study. It was meant to gather information on the formation of the Big Island by studying the layers of lava as the hole was drilled deeper and deeper.

The background as I understand it: In eartlier days, only the Kohala Mountain range, Hualalai and Mauna Kea protruded above the ocean. Then Mauna Loa erupted and the Hilo side of Mauna Kea was covered by Mauna Loa’s lava.

Core samples showed that there was Mauna Loa lava atop soil from Mauna Kea, much like the kind of material you see on the Hilo/Hamakua coast. Then, as the drill went deeper, they found fresh water at 160 lbs. of pressure in the Mauna Kea lava, way below the surface of the ocean. This is what’s called an artesian well, and is when you get water shooting out under pressure from the surface of the land. That means that this water is under pressure from water that is pushing against it.

As I understand it, drill deep enough and water will just shoot out of the ground. I’ll ask Don what all this means and report back here.

I saw Luana Kawelu at the Keaukaha Community Association meeting Wednesday night. Kumu Lehua calls her one of the “Gang of Three” (with Patrick Kahawaiola‘a) — the folks who together help to make Keaukaha Elementary School the excellent school that it is. She is also the driving force behind the Merrie Monarch Festival. She has never let marketing and dreams of bigger and better things cloud her judgment. She just focuses on the pono thing. I cannot imagine how the Merrie Monarch Festival could be done better. “Pono” is way good enough.

Thursday, I flew to Maui to visit supermarkets as part of my marketing involvement with the new organic farm at Kapalua called WeFarm@Kapalua. This organic farm is on former Maui Pineapple Company lands and consists of approximately 158 acres. David Cole, the former CEO of Maui Land and Pine, started the organic farm awhile ago. When MLP got out of pineapple, the Ulupono Initiative submitted a bid to take over the former organic farm. From the Ulupono Initiative website:

Ulupono Sustainable Agriculture Development LLC, a subsidiary of the Ulupono Initiative, announced today that it would be assuming operations of Kapalua Farms, an organic farming and agriculture research facility located near the entry of the Kapalua Resort in West Maui.  Maui Land & Pineapple Company, Inc., owners of the 158-acre agricultural parcel, successfully reached an agreement with Ulupono earlier this month, with the transition of the property already underway.
“We are pleased to partner with Ulupono Sustainable Agriculture Development as they assume operations of Kapalua Farms,” said Warren H. Haruki, chairman and interim CEO of Maui Land & Pineapple Company, Inc.  “Our desire was to find an operational partner that would be able to continue organic farming operations and to maintain Kapalua Farms as a community resource, employer, and provider.  Ulupono is an exemplary organization committed to preserving our agricultural land, and we look forward to working together.”

I am especially pleased to be working with the Ulupono Initiative and WeFarm@Kapalua because I watched Jeff Alvord put this initiative together over the last several years. Jeff would call when he was in town and we would talk about the larger picture of a sustainable Hawai‘i. I knew from early on that the Omidyar Group had the best interest of Hawai‘i at heart. I’m very happy to be closely involved with this new organic farming initiative.

Later, when I made my way to the Maui airport, I ran into Stevie Whalen, the President of the Hawai‘i Ag Research Center, which is the modern-day iteration of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association’s research arm.

Founded in 1895, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA), dedicated to improving the sugar industry in
, has become an internationally recognized research center. Its name change in 1996 to Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC) reflects its expanding scope to encompass research in forestrycoffee, forage, vegetable crops, tropical fruits, and many other diversified crops in addition to sugarcane. HARC is a private, non-profit 501c5 organization.

HARC specializes in horticultural crop research including agronomy and plant nutrition, plant physiology, breeding, genetic engineering and tissue culture, and control of diseases and pests through integrated pest management. HARC also performs pesticide registration work; training in areas such as pesticide application and environmental compliance; ground water monitoring; and technical
literature searches.

Stevie was on Maui to help provide research info about new biocrop possibilities that could possibly be the base feedstock that would provide the U.S. Navy the kind of second and third generation fuel that it could use to fly its jet planes and run its ships. Liquid transportation fuel is very important for us living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It will take a huge research effort to develop high-yielding bio feedstock. It will not just happen miraculously, out of the blue. I have the utmost confidence in Stevie and her HARC crew, as well as Andy Hashimoto and the CTAHR crew.

Stevie told me that it’s becoming evident that biofuel production will need to use the added value of co-products to make it an economically viable form of energy. There is no doubt that we want to develop a biofuel that will eventually be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. I am very aware that much more work needs to be done.

Then, on the plane back to Hilo, I ended up sitting next to Arnold Hara, extension entomologist for UH Manoa. He was on Maui as part of a project to intensively inspect imported produce coming from the mainland and foreign countries. He was very concerned about the amount of invasive species insects that are being found on imported organic produce. He called imported organic produce “dirty.” He meant that there are lots of hitchhikers on organic produce. It is very worrisome.

I’ll call him tomorrow and ask what varieties of organic produce we should grow to replace imported organic produce. I’m very happy to be associated with WeFarm@Kapalua, where we can help to protect Hawai‘i from invasive species.


Kalepa Baybayan – Navigator-In-Residence at ‘Imiloa

Kalepa Kalepa Baybayan is known as a “Master Navigator,” but when I talked to him the other day, it was clear the title makes him uncomfortable. He returned to it twice.

“I would disclaim being a master of anything,” he said. “I’m pretty much a student of the art. Though I have greater responsibilities, I still learn every time I go out.”

He was talking about going out on the Hokule‘a, which he’s sailed on since 1975, when he was 19. If there is anything more interesting than the story of the Hokule‘a, I don’t know what it is.

From Wikipedia:

Hōkūleʻa is a performance-accurate full-scale replica of a waʻa kaulua, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. Launched on 8 March 1975 by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, she is best known for her 1976 Hawaiʻi to Tahiti voyage performed with Polynesian navigation techniques, without modern navigational instruments. The primary goal of the voyage was to further support the anthropological theory of the Asiatic origin of native Oceanic people, of Polynesians and Hawaiians in particular, as the result of purposeful trips through the Pacific, as opposed to passive drifting on currents, or sailing from the Americas. (Scientific results of 2008, from DNA analysis, illuminate this theory of Polynesian settlement.) A secondary goal of the project was to have the canoe and voyage “serve as vehicles for the cultural revitalization of Hawaiians and other Polynesians.”

Since the 1976 voyage to Tahiti and back, Hōkūle‘a has completed nine more voyages to destinations in Micronesia, Polynesia, Japan, Canada, and the United States, all using ancient wayfinding techniques of celestial navigation.

The next Hokule‘a voyage, now in the planning stages, is going to be a doozy: They’re planning to take the voyaging canoe around the world. The Hokule‘a is going to circumnavigate the globe, and it will probably be a two- to three-year voyage, he said.

“As ambitious as that sounds, explorers have been sailing around the world for a couple hundred years now,” he said, “so it’s not something so far out there it’s not achievable.”

“In my very early years, looking at that traditionally shaped sail cutting across the night sky,” he said, “that’s a pretty compelling vision for a young man to see. I look up there and realize that silhouette I’m seeing is probably the same one my ancestors saw.

“The excitement, amazement, the loneliness and happiness of finding land – it’s timeless. That’s universal. So you get really close to experiencing the world and the environment in the same sense your ancestors did.”

Richard wanted to know if Kalepa navigates the canoe by the ocean, looking up at the stars, or whether he sees himself as traveling in space – in the stars?

Kalepa thought about that before answering. He said he just sees the canoe pointing in a certain direction, and things moving by it. “I don’t really experience it as the canoe being moved by nature,” he said. “Rather I see nature moving by us.”

When not at sea, Kalepa is Navigator-in-Residence at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. Isn’t that a great title? “They had an Astronomer-In-Residence and they wanted a Navigator-In-Residence too,” he explained.

‘Imiloa, of course, is where we “celebrate Hawaiian culture and Maunakea astronomy, sharing with the world an inspiring example of science and culture united [my italics] to advance knowledge, understanding and opportunity.”

Kalepa and the interim executive director, Ka‘iu Kimura, are both graduates of the Hawaiian language college, and Kalepa said there’s an indigenous model of leadership emerging at ‘Imiloa.

“One of the great things about ‘Imiloa is that it’s exposing us to the national and international communities,” he said.

About a year and a half ago, he and ‘Imiloa Planetarium Director Shawn Laatsch were invited to speak at Athens and Hamburg planetariums. “There is a curiosity about indigenous astronomy,” he said, “and the story of voyaging is a really compelling story. And the context is to have Shawn speak to the [astronomical] exploration being done on Mauna Kea.”

He said while he’s really happy with where Hawai‘i’s voyaging knowledge is at, there’s still a lot of work to do. “We experimented with what we were doing,” he said. ‘We learned and we gathered the info. Now it’s a matter of, How do we teach it in an effective way? Who are the teachers?

“It’s one thing to have a conversation with canoe people who travel together all the time, but trying to talk to a new generation, that’s a different kind of process.”

This seems to be another place ‘Imiloa comes in.

“We need to make a connection to the STEM program,” he said, “to science; that encourages young learners to follow the tradition of navigation; not to be navigators, but to follow the tradition of exploring.”

“My largest responsibility,” he said, about his role at ‘Imiloa, “is that the internal compass of the organization be aligned to the horizon we want to move toward.”


‘Amounting to Something’

I recently read a nice article in West Hawaii Today of a young person, Mike Rasay, who came out of a small rural school in South Kona.

The 1997 Konawaena graduate idolized our Kona-born and -raised astronaut Ellison Onizuka, and is now doing things he could not have imagined just a few years ago — such as serving as a “ground segment lead in Tuesday’s launch of a NASA microsatellite to study space’s affect on cells in long-duration space travel.”

These are the kinds of things that happen when students are influenced by a special teacher, inspired by surrounding events and supported as they pursue their dreams.

All Big Island students now go on excursions to ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, where they are awed and inspired by stories of astronomy and Hawaiian culture. If the Thirty Meter Telescope, the best telescope in the whole world, comes here with a new paradigm of support for local communities and education for young students, more people like Mike Rasay will find themselves being able to do the unimaginable.

Rocket science: Konawaena grad contributing to NASA mission

by Chelsea Jensen
West Hawaii Today
Monday, May 4, 2009 8:55 AM HST

Never let graduating from a school in Hawaii keep you from accomplishing your dreams.

“I have been on the bad end of the comments where people say ‘you’re never going to amount to anything. You’re never going to have a chance to do anything you want to so there’s no sense in trying,'” said Mike Rasay, a 1997 graduate of Konawaena High School who will serve as a ground segment lead in Tuesday’s launch of a NASA microsatellite to study space’s affect on cells in long-duration space travel.

“I never thought I would get into doing space missions. You never really think it’s possible,” said Rasay. “I always feel like I proved the naysayers wrong and just have been able to break through all of the negative generalizations about the students from Hawaii.”

Read the rest of the article at West Hawaii Today.


Passing the Torch

I just watched the KGMB9-TV special Hokulea – Passing The Torch.

It was about the Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug “passing the torch” to five new navigators.

From Wikipedia:

Born on the island of Satawal in the Caroline Islands, Mau received his knowledge of navigation from an early age, taught first by his grandfather. When he was around 18, through training of a master navigator, he went through sacred ceremony called Pwo.

Through this he became “Paliuw” by a master navigator, through the Weriyeng School of Navigation. Weriyeng School of Navigation, which began on Pollap Island a long, long time ago, is only one of two schools of navigation left in Micronesia.

He is best known for his work with the Hawaii-based Polynesian Voyaging Society, navigating the double-hulled canoe Hokule‘a from Hawaii to Tahiti on its maiden voyage in 1976, and training and mentoring Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, who would later become a master navigator in his own right.

On March 18, 2007 Piailug presided over the first Pwo ceremony for navigators on Satawal in 56 years. At the event five native Hawaiians and eleven others were inducted into Pwo as master navigators. The Polynesian Voyaging Society presented Piailug a canoe, the Alingano Maisu, as a gift for his key role in reviving traditional wayfinding navigation in Hawaii.

Alingano Maisu was built in Kawaihae, Hawaii under the non- profit organization, Nā Kalai Waʻa Moku O Hawaiʻi. The commitment to build this “gift” for Mau was made by Clay Bertelmann, Captain of Makali‘i and Hokule‘a. Maisu was given to Mau on behalf of all the voyaging families and organizations that are now actively continuing to sail and practice the traditions taught by Mau Piailug.

Hundreds of years before the Spaniards and English entered the Pacific, Polynesian navigators were moving back and forth around the ocean, and to and from Hawai‘i, without instruments. Five hundred years ago, Polynesians were the greatest navigators in the world.

In the 1897 introduction that Queen Lili‘uokalani wrote for the Hawaiian creation chant the Kumulipo (she wrote it while she was under house arrest), she noted that Hawaiians were astronomers.

We need to again elevate Hawaiian wayfinding navigator/astronomers to the highest level of respect, similar to how we feel today about astronauts.

In doing that, we will lift our keiki’s aspirations. They will take pride in who they are and they will see that anything is possible.

One way to do this is to continue practicing the sacred science of astronomy on our sacred mountain, Mauna Kea.

If the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for Mauna Kea does not pass, it will likely mean the end of astronomy on Mauna Kea in the near future. Without the CMP, the Thirty-Meter Telescope will be built in Chile, and when the current lease for the rest of the telescopes is up, they will shut down and so will the astronomy program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

We need to support the Comprehensive Management Plan and the Thirty-Meter Telescope for what they can do for our people. For our keiki.

We need to pass the torch.


Astrophysicist at Work

Richard and June recently took their grandson Kapono and granddaughter Kimberly to ‘Imiloa. That’s Hilo’s state-of-the-art, primarily NASA-funded, $28-million, 40,000-square-foot exhibition and planetarium complex, which strives to present both science—the world-class astronomy being done atop Mauna Kea—and the mountain’s highly significant cultural importance to Hawaiians. Most in the community seem to agree it does a good job at both.

The Has and their grandchildren watched the planetarium show, and afterward went up to see who was controlling the computers. “It turned out to be this very nice, confident UHH student working part-time,” says Richard. “Her name was ‘Ahia Dye.”

Twenty-six year old ‘Ahia, who grew up in Kailua, O‘ahu, is graduating this semester from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo with a bachelor’s degree in Astronomy and a minor in Physics. She is also studying Hawaiian Studies, and will continue on at UHH after graduation to complete her undergraduate degree in that field as well.

“The more I get into the professional field,” she says, “the more I realize the importance of knowing both your culture and the science together. It’s an important background to have. I’m finding it very very helpful, and fun too.”

I asked ‘Ahia how she became interested in the sciences, and she told me about her elder brother, a physicist, who always talked to her about their natural environment. “We would walk down to the beach and he would explain to me that the moon rises about an hour later every night,” she says, “and how the sun changes its position along the horizon as it rises throughout the year.”

‘Ahia’s job at ‘Imiloa is an internship she got through participating in UH Hilo’s Keaholoa STEM program, an NSF-funded program that supports Hawaiians in the sciences. Coincidentally, Richard is a new advisory board member of the program.

“There are about 20 interns now,” says ‘Ahia. “Besides going to school full time, they all participate in internships in their fields. That’s what kept me in astronomy, this internship, and given me an edge. Getting into the field is so different from studying the books. And being surrounded by so many Hawaiian kids; seeing all of us striving and moving forward in fields where we’re not so well-represented.”

Now that she’s graduating, she has been offered a position at ‘Imiloa.

Richard says, “I’m sure she doesn’t realize how important it is, what a role model she is, as a female native Hawaiian astrophysicist. It blows me away.”

‘Ahia is a role model in another way, too. She overcame a learning disability to get to where she is today. “I’m very dyslexic and I was failing out of 9th grade,” she says. “I was a good student, but I just wasn’t doing well.” Her parents enrolled her at Honolulu’s Assets School.

“They focus on what you can do there,” she says, “and push you in that way. They pushed technology and math and sciences. It was really fun. It’s different for every person, but what Assets did for me is they taught me how to interpret information and how to more quickly absorb it using different mediums.”

Richard was not the only one impressed with ‘Ahia; she also had a major impact on his grandson Kapono, who is 17. “He’s the kind of kid that has had no trouble with advanced math,” says Richard, “but he had not found his calling. Seeing ‘Ahia in action just blew him away. It gives me chicken skin to talk about it. Now he wants to volunteer to work at ‘Imiloa, and she said she would try to help him get in there.”

‘Ahia has only positive things to say about Kapono. “I think he’s going to be just outstanding,” she says. “He already has that mentality. He knows enough about computers, he’s going to learn a lot about astronomy, he already has the people skills, and he’s very nice and also motivated.

“My boss Shawn Laatsch, the planetarium manager, has been working in planetariums since high school,” she added. “I can see the same look in Kapono; the same ‘ano [nature] as Shawn. I think he’s going to be really great.” — posted by Leslie Lang


Nutrients & Ethics

Richard learned something the other day that he called “kind of shocking,” and he’s already taking action.

What he learned is that data collected over the last 50 years by the U.S. Agriculture Department show a decline in the nutritional value of our fruits and vegetables—in some cases, a dramatic change, ranging from a 6 percent decrease in the amount of protein to 38 percent less riboflavin.

“As soon as I read that article,” he said, “it came to me that we don’t normally focus on nutrient levels in our vegetables. So to the extent we can do something about it, we’re going to.”

He added, “We aren’t going to go off the deep end, but we are going to tilt in this direction. If we can get great taste, happy plants and plants that are more nutrient-dense than they were six months ago, we’ll be really happy.”

Charlotte Romo, the farm’s hydroponic crop specialist, agrees with the scientist quoted in the article that the nutrient decreases are likely due to changed agricultural practices. “After WWII, they started using synthesized chemicals out in the fields,” she said, “and based everything on what the plant needs. But they never really looked, I think, at what they were getting as far as the fruit. They try to pump up the plant to grow fast and yield a lot of fruit, but that doesn’t necessarily yield quality fruit.”

“Fifty years ago there were lots of little farms located everywhere,” she said. “Now there are giant farms and they do what’s good for shipping, but not necessarily good for food quality.”

And so, the plan: First, to determine the nutrient levels of the farm’s tomatoes and lettuces right now. Charlotte is sending tomatoes off to the lab on O‘ahu for nutritional analyses on the fruit itself, whereas previously they have only checked the leaf. “I don’t think it’s common practice to do the fruit analysis to check for nutrients,” she said. She explained that normally they do leaf analyses, which tells them what the plant needs—but doesn’t tell them about nutrients found in the fruit, which we actually eat.

They will also see about increasing nutrients in the lettuce, if necessary, for which they already have leaf analyses.

“Increasing nutrients is not something most people talk about, and I don’t know of anything in terms of recommendations along those lines,” Richard said. “I’ve never heard of fertilizing and growing plants for their nutrient component. But it just makes sense to me that the vegetables should have as many nutrients as possible in them. It just makes common sense.”

I asked Richard if it will be a selling point. “I don’t know that it’s going to be something we can advertise,” he said, “and say ours is better than the next. I just know it’s the right thing to do, so we’re going to attempt to do it.”

“It’s like when we decided to become Eco-OK. We were first to be certified Eco-OK. Or when we decided to become Food Safety Certified. That, too, was just the right thing to do.”

[Editor’s note: I had to fight Our Modest Farmer to allow me to include this next part, which he didn’t know about until he previewed this blog post]:

When I talked to Charlotte about this, she acknowledged that these extra fruit analyses and possible increases in what they feed the plants will be extra expenses. Referring to Richard making these decisions merely because it’s the “right thing to do,” she added, “Isn’t it amazing to meet an ethical person? I think we all try to be ethical, but sometimes our pocketbook gets the best of us. Even really nice people that I’ve worked with, they don’t always do the right thing.

“I keep flaunting Richard to all my colleagues back in Tucson,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You won’t believe it—he’s an ethical person! I get to work with an ethical person!’ It’s so refreshing.” —posted by Leslie Lang

A conversation between Richard and Leslie:

Richard: You know, I knew that Charlotte liked working here, but I had no idea she thought that way. But posting what she said makes me a little uncomfortable. I don’t know if I like the idea of putting myself out there as though I am some sort of “ethical person.” I really don’t think of myself that way.

Leslie: Well, you are.

Richard: You know, I have kind of a kolohe past, from when I was a kid! I don’t walk around thinking of myself like that, or like I’m different or better than anybody else.

Leslie: What if we posted what she said, but also had you write a disclaimer stating that in no way do you consider yourself ethical?

Richard: Oh, well, maybe we could do that. Let me think about it. You know, I’m not doing this for any sort of “ethical” reason. I’m doing it because I sort of take a long-term view of things, and as long as it doesn’t destroy our business financially, it just seems like the thing to do.

Leslie: Richard, that’s the definition of “ethical.”

Richard: Well. You know, when I really think about why this label of “ethical” makes me a little uncomfortable, I realized my decisions always come back to our employees. When they go home and tell their families what we’re doing here, what are the reactions going to be?

Leslie: Positive.

Richard: That’s right, and it will make them feel good about their jobs and what they are doing. That’s really my focus. You know, another example of that is that we host young schoolkids at the farm a lot. And when they come, we always have the farm all cleaned up, and when everything’s so clean it really makes everybody feel good. My decisions really all come back to how they make the employees feel.

Leslie: You’re still ethical.

Richard: Maybe my employees are ethical people and that’s what makes me do what I do.

Leslie: Okay.


Green Goddess Monitors the Salad

Leslie Lang writes:

Charlotte Romo, who recently started working with us at the farm, is new to the islands and tells us she keeps having to fill out forms that ask for her job title.


“I’m still not sure what my title is,” she says. “I put ‘Plant Scientist,” though I’m probably more of a Greenhouse Research Technician. But I prefer ‘Greenhouse Goddess.'”

She says she’s thrilled to be working with Hamakua Springs. “I love the farm and I’m so impressed at what they have created in such a short time. These people move really fast!”

She jokes that her job is to walk around and make shade for the plants, but it’s a bit more than that. Right now her research technician/plant scientist/goddess work revolves around data collection, in order to evaluate plant growth and yield and determine how to fine tune things so the operation will be as efficient as possible. Sometimes she works with a lysimeter.

“A what?,” you inquire.

I had to ask, too.

Charlotte Romo writes: A lysimeter is a fancy, scientific term for a bucket, which we use to collect and measure the drainage coming out of the growing bags.

We also have a collection bottle to monitor the input of the nutrient solution we put on the plants to make sure that the nutrients are getting from the mixing tanks to the plants just the way we want them. We need to maintain at least 20% drainage of what we put on the plants to make sure we flush any excess nutrient salts through the root zone. If we get too little drainage we know we need to increase irrigation, and vice versa.

By monitoring what goes in and what comes out of our plants, we make sure the plants are using the nutrients we give them and that we are using our fertilizer efficiently.

By controlling the nutrients we use intensely, we also prevent our fertilizer from becoming a burden on the natural environment around the farm. We keep in mind that this land of heavy agricultural use is surrounded by fragile coral reef ecosystems that are extremely sensitive to excess nutrient runoff that can result from agricultural practices.