UH study finds that invasive species spread by rangers unknowingly


HILO — Forest service workers in Hilo were presented with an interesting question a few years ago: Could their rangers, through their efforts on behalf of conservation, actually be contributing in some way to the spread of invasive species in Hawaii’s native forests?

Rangers believed that seeds from invasive plants could be hitching a ride on their vehicles as they drove deep into native forests, thereby making it easier for the invasive plants to penetrate and spread. It was a possibility, but it would take time and manpower to explore a definitive answer. That’s where a University of Hawaii conservation research internship program came in.

The Pacific Island Programs for Exploring Science, or PIPES, as it is known to participants and administrators, is aimed at giving budding young scientists — with emphasis on underrepresented students of Native Hawaiian and local ancestry — a real-world experience in performing research and education projects related to the natural resources of Hawaii and the Pacific region.

UH interns are paired with partner organizations for 10 weeks during the summer. They are provided with mentors to help guide their research projects, and they are paid for their work. The fact that the interns are paid is one of the secrets of the program’s success, said PIPES Associate Director Sharon Ziegler-Chong.

“They make at least $10 an hour,” she said, “and that’s important. … Some of these local kids, they can’t afford not to work for the summer. In some cases they need to help out with family expenses.”

The PIPES partners, more than 50 of them at last count, have been very generous in offering money and mentors to the program, in addition to the funding PIPES receives from grants, Ziegler-Chong said.

In the case of the Forest Service, a student chose to help research the question of the piggybacking invasive plants, and he was paired with mentors, given guidance, and allowed to perform experiments to find an answer to the vexing question.

“He ended up taking mud samples from the tires of the rangers’ trucks,” Ziegler-Chong said. “Then he grew them in a greenhouse. And sure enough, there were invasive plants.”

On the strength of the project’s findings, she added, rangers have made changes to the way they operate to try and cut down on the impact of the hitchhiking plants.

Of course, each research project is different, and students are given a wide variety of options, she said. Some of the projects students will take on this summer include:

c creating databases of climate change research and funding;

c invasive species work on immature plants;

c research on how foraging behavior and home of iivi are affected;

c microbial water quality in Hilo Bay;

c study of bird nesting and rat diet;

c and, restoring tropical dry forests on military lands in the Pacific.

This week served as the orientation for the summer’s new crop of interns. The 31 participants converged on the waterfront in Keaukaha to perform experiments related to farming oysters in Pacific waters, and the effects of temperature and food on their growth.

It was a quick crash course encapsulating the themes and processes of research that they would explore in further detail over the summer. Friday was the final day of orientation, during which they worked to prepare Power Point presentations on their findings.

“Our project is appealing to the policy side,” said rising UH-Manoa Junior Emily Mishina of her team’s orientation project. “We’re trying to get oysters to be grown in Hawaii. … We looked at various conditions of temperature, food. And we can, indeed, grow them in Hilo. It’s a good resource.”

As for the research she’ll be doing this summer, Mishina said she’ll be studying DNA. Her team-mate, Anela Akiona, a rising junior at the University of San Diego, says she looks forward to a project evaluating invasive species and how they are affected by climate change.

“This is pretty new, the work I’ll be doing,” she said. “People are just starting to look at this. We’ll be determining what aspects of climate change affect them (invasive species) the most.”

In addition to organizing the internship study programs, PIPES coordinators like Ulu Ching are responsible for following up with students throughout their undergraduate years to make sure they are on track to achieving their educational goals.

“It’s a lot more than just organizing internships,” Ching said. “And I completely love what I do.”

Now in its 16th year, PIPES has worked with a total of 408 interns, Ziegler-Chong said. And between 60 and 70 percent of the program graduates have gone on to snag jobs in science-related fields.

That’s a success rate that appeals to returning intern Nanea Lindsey. This marks the second summer she has participated in the PIPES internships. Her reasoning for coming back, she said, was to try and gain more field experience to help her in obtaining a job after graduating last year.

“I was pretty new to my field. I transferred to to studying natural resources and environmental management, and I didn’t have much background in that,” she said Friday. “It’s hard to find a job without much experience in my field, so that’s why I’m back. … I hope it will help me be the better person for the job.”

For more information on the PIPES internships, visit hilo.hawaii.edu/uhintern/.