Field Blog

Looking to the future, learning from the past

Every semester, students evaluate their professors and their courses. At the University of Hawai’i, this is done through an online system called eCAFE. UH West O’ahu provides new faculty with suggestions from other faculty on how to get students to fill out the surveys. Many are what you would expect – provide class time for completing surveys, offer extra credit incentives, etc. One professors commented that every semester, they post their evaluations online and respond to student comments (especially the critical ones) – this shows students that their comments are read and considered, and it provides new students a chance to see what previous students have thought of this instructor and course. Since this was my first time teaching the large introductory Biol 171/172 sections at UH Mānoa, and since I may be returning in the Fall 2017 to teach the same courses, I decided to do the same.

You can read the full student responses for Biol 171 and Biol 172, and/or scroll through my summaries and responses below. Since the courses and the responses were rather similar, my descriptions below are summarized across both courses. Anything in italics is a direct quote of a student comment, followed by the course that student took in parentheses.

Humble Brag
I’ll start with a number of individual student comments which I found particularly amusing or meaningful. These are admittedly all cherry-picked; the most positive and articulate comments, hence the humble brag…

She made boring topics very interesting to listen to and learn about. (Biol 171) and Made plants sorta fun (which in and of itself is a hard task). (Biol 172) Thanks! I think…?

I liked the plant portion of the class best. (Biol 172)  YES! I converted one!!!! #botanistsunite

thank you for making me feel like I’m learning in a small classroom environment when it’s a huge lecture! (Biol 172) This was what I worried most about going into this semester, and the several comments like this made me feel I succeeded on that front.

I enjoyed how passionate how (sic) Laci was about the subject of biology. I also liked the atmosphere of the class, she does not make you afraid to give your answer even if it is not correct. (Biol 171). I want every student to feel this way, in every class, for the rest of my career. Science isn’t about having right answers, it’s about the process of getting to them. Never be afraid to be wrong.

This class was in the morning and professor Laci made the class so much more bearable with her nerdy quirks, insightful explanations, and interactive discussions. (Biol 171) Sometimes I think my nerdy quirks are my most effective teaching tool. That’s not at all a joke.

Loved this class! I know more about animal copulation and defecation than I ever thought I’d need to–and watching Finding Nemo will never be the same. Those are all wins in my book. #marthasmom (Biol 172) #yourewelcome

I felt very secure in her knowledge of the material and this facilitated a trust-based learning environment. She was also freaking hilarious and that doesn’t hurt either. (Biol 172) I never thought ‘trust-based learning environment’ and ‘freaking hilarious’ would end up in the same comment….

I really super enjoyed this course, and felt that Dr. Gerhart-Barley actually cared about our success in the class (which is something I can’t say about a lot of my professors this semester). (Biol 172) I get at least one comment like this ever semester and it always saddens me. Do that many professors really not enjoy teaching or care about the success of their students?

These next three almost make me tear up:
Dr. Gerhart taught with such passion, love, and care. She has truly left an impact in my life and I hope that she continues to do this for as long as she teaches. (Biol 172)

She really gave me a different perspective and outlook on not only biology, but life. (Biol 171)

i can tell this class means something to you and because of you it means something to me too. (Biol 172)

And the best in both classes:
She. Is. Flawless (Biol 171) and You’re perfect (Biol 172) awwww, shucks….

Me, Myself, and I
When the history of discoveries were taught with such passion, they became unforgettable. The content may have been difficult but it was very enjoyable to learn. (Biol 171)

I generally get positive results from the students about their interactions with me as an individual. I wondered how that would translate from my smaller (24 student) sections at UHWO to the 250+ students in 171 and 172 at UHM. It must have translated well because the vast majority of students commented on my enthusiasm and engaging lecture style, how much they enjoyed my personal stories, etc etc. For example, when asked what they liked best about the class, one student said The best part of the course was the interactions between the professor and the students. She did well to communicate with examples from her lifestyle and our lifestyles. (Biol 171) and another said  I love anything that sparked her passion the most, especially plants, because she got even more enthusiastic than usual and it was adorable. (Biol 172) and another said She made class fun but also thought provoking. (Biol 172) and another said Please never change your teaching style. You’re a perfect example of a how a professor should operate in a classroom. (Biol 172) and another said I enjoyed the enthusiasm that Laci brought to her lectures and to the classroom in general. She was always in a great mood, very engaging, and relatable to the students. You could tell she was passionate about the subject material as well as the success of her students. (Biol 171) and another said Laci Gerhart Barley made this class interesting and exciting. She is very easy to talk to and helpful without making the class easy. She has a great balance of being friendly and helpful, while also keeping the class a challenge. She makes students think and understand the material rather than just memorize vocabulary. This was so far my favorite class at UH Manoa (Biol 171).

One comment I particularly enjoyed:

I loved that you always had time for your students when we needed help outside of class and that you would always ask if we had questions and if we understood everything even when we didn’t respond. I really loved that you kept asking if we got it fully before moving on. (Biol 171) I’ve had students tease me about how often I say ‘Does that make sense?’ and in this class, they teased me about expecting a verbal response, but I appreciate their feedback in the moment (not later on an exam or homework) on how clear I’m being. Just asking that question makes their faces tell me the answer even if their voices don’t.

In fact, the only negative thing students said about me as an individual is that I sometimes should slow down in the lectures. They’re totally right – I talk faster the more excited I get. I’ve been working on slowing down for pretty much my whole professional life.

Preparing for Exams
The students overwhelmingly requested study guides (or practice exams). I have tried a number of ways to better guide student preparation for exams in the past. When I provided practice exams to my smaller sections at UHWO, they were a lot of effort on my part (you are writing two exams, and they need to be similar enough that completing one prepares you for the other, but different enough that they aren’t essentially the same) and no one did them. I switched to a study guide of a bullet-pointed list of terms, topics, and concepts and was impressed at the number of students that used the study guide, and did so effectively.
At UHM, I decided to piecemeal the standard study guide as learning objectives for each lecture – this way the students know for each chapter what they should be studying as we go, and don’t have to wait for a study guide closer to the exam. I explicitly stated this in class on about half the lectures and repeatedly reminded students who asked how to study for the exams throughout the semester. Only a few students commented on the learning objectives, and they alternately found them very helpful or too vague to usefully guide studying. Regardless, I could easily provide students in the future with a bullet-pointed list to guide their studying, though I’m not confident it will improve performance.

Exams Themselves
My exams for both courses consisted of 50 multiple choice questions (to be completed in a 50-minute class). Many students requested shorter exams, more exams covering less material, easier questions (ha ha), or inclusion of short-answer/essay questions. I spent many hours prior to the course weighing various options for the structure of the exams, and came to this decision not lightly or happily. While students frequently view multiple choice questions as easier, they can actually be much harder, as students frequently talk themselves out of the right answer. Also, writing good multiple choice questions that are not absurdly hard or painfully easy and get at complex topics can be difficult. They lend themselves a lot more easily to straight definitions or simpler concepts than critical thinking skills. This was especially troubling to me since the vast majority of their grades came from exams (which also frustrated many students).
Exams for my smaller sections are entirely essay, short answer, and a bit of matching or diagram labeling. In a class of 24, that format is manageable; however, this semester, I had over 520 students across 171 and 172, and only a part-time grading assistant for 171 (and no help for 172). I talked with many of my colleagues who teach larger courses about options for getting out of multiple choice questions, and including assignments other than exams without burying myself under a mountain of grading. In the end, I was wary of committing myself to a grading structure I couldn’t maintain, and instead chose to keep the same grade and exam structure that past instructors of these two sections have used.

Lectures and Activities
I better understood the matieral (sic) when we did hands on learning. I believe that the handout she gave us were very effective as they made us communicate with one another to understand the topic. (Biol 171)

I enjoyed the interactive discussions that took place in class. I appreciated her desire to stray from the traditional lecture class setting because I feel it personally helped me grasp the concepts taught in class by being able to apply it in discussion. (Biol 171)

Most of the class periods were fairly standard lectures, interspersed with iClicker (multiple choice) and open-ended discussion questions. I also sprinkled in a number of what I called Applying Concepts days – these were opportunities for us to catch up if we got behind on material, focus on local or historical issues (such as medical ethics or the ecological restoration of Kaho’olawe following its use as a military bombing range), or to do in-class group activities. Many 171 students really enjoyed the group activities and requested more of them. The 172 students were a bit more mixed. For example, this student comment, which I find kind of amusing: I didn’t like the interactive assignments, even though it was fun, I personally would have rather had a lecture. (Biol 172) I’m sorry you had fun, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…
I believe this difference is because of the content of the activities. In 171, they focused more on practicing particular skills – using Punnett squares to predict offspring genotypes/phenotypes, reading a codon table to determine the amino acid chain produced by a particular stretch of DNA, building a phylogenetic tree, etc. These were skills the students would need in order to answer exam questions, and it gave them the time to practice them beforehand with feedback (and I explicitly framed the exercises to them using this reasoning). The activities in 172 were focused more on applying class concepts to real world problems – effectiveness (or lack thereof) of genetically modified rice to solve nutritional deficiencies in third world countries, the relative merits and dangers of fad diets, etc etc. While I personally found these exercises more interesting, they are less obviously related to course content and showed up less frequently on exams, and therefor were less relevant to the students.
Regardless, the students seemed to overall enjoy the lecture style and the class structure generally. One student comment sums this up nicely: Her current teaching style is extremely effective. The combination of powerpoint lectures and in class activities are helpful in understanding the chapters and topics of this course. She breaks down the topics so that even people who know nothing about biology can understand. (Biol 171) The only mild exception to this was my debate to post my lectures online, and whether to do it prior to or after lecture. I want to share my lectures for students to study from later, but I know it encourages skipping. Also, I don’t want students to be able to see ahead to a point I’m building or a question I’m asking (hence waiting till after class to post them). I split the middle by posting my lectures prior to class, but removing answers to questions or spoilers to a story/example. Students disliked this; however, I will continue to do it because not coming to class means you don’t get all the information.

Homework on MasteringBiology
We use the standard Campbell’s Biology through Pearson, along with online homework assignments through MasteringBiology. I made the homework assignments not formally due until the exam date, though I strongly encouraged the students to complete them prior to the lecture to be prepared for that day’s content. A number of students requested the deadlines be prior to lecture, to which my general comment is that the homework is posted from day one and you can set your own earlier deadlines for completion if you like. Many students completed the homework early to stay up on material, while others chose to use it as a study guide before the exam. This one I will not change, simply because I would spend every morning responding to students who missed the homework deadline and want an extension. I already had many of those with the deadlines on the exams.
I also make the homework completion-based instead of grading for correct answers. Philosophically, I want to focus more on the process of thinking and learning and not just the right answer. I believe completion-based homework lowers the stress (especially since MasteringBiology takes off points for using hints or other aids provided by the system) and encourages the students to think through concept for themselves and learn from their mistakes or misconceptions (especially since MasteringBiology provides feedback on why wrong answers are wrong, or other information backing up the correct answer). The few students that commented on this seemed to agree: The fact that the mastering biology assignments were graded on completion made the assignments less stressful yet extremely helpful. The fact that she focuses more on knowledge and understanding rather than getting the answer right away. (Biol 171)

The Future
So, in summary, what will I do differently next time I teach these courses? Overall, I will probably keep a similar structure since my comments were overall quite positive. I’ll keep my ‘nerdy quirks’ and ‘adorable’ love of plants (as if I could get rid of them). I’ll keep posting my lecture slides and I’ll keep removing the answers and spoilers – students can add them in themselves during class. I’ll keep the completion-based homework with exam due dates (but remind students frequently they can do them early). I’ll keep all the activities in 171, and maybe add in some more. I’ll reevaluate the ones in 172; maybe I’ll make them more skill-oriented, or find a way to integrate them better with the rest of the course material (and the exams). I’ll try giving them a study guide and see if anyone uses or appreciates it. I will once again agonize over the reliance on multiple choice exams for the bulk of the grade and consider all the options I can find for getting around that. I don’t yet know what the outcome will be on that front, but I’m hopeful that I can find a structure that eases the exam anxiety for students without overloading myself on grading.

UHWO Restoration at Piliokahe Beach

Last weekend, students from introductory biology and botany classes met at Piliokahe Beach on the Waianae Coast to restore native dune ecosystems! We have been working our way down the dune for several years now, and my favorite part of this site is how visible our progress is across the dune. The dune slopes that we’ve planted in past semesters are overrun with native vegetation, and each semester we work our way a bit further down the dune.

Last semester, we discovered that a number of our plantings from the previous fall had been killed by squatters setting tents on our plantings. Bruce and I had discussed posting signs indicating that restoration was in progress and to take care where you step and set up camp. Since then, Bruce created and posted these signs, and fortunately, there was no evidence this semester of our previous plantings being trampled.

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Hopefully these signs protect our baby plants as they establish on the dune

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Erosion of last semester’s plantings

Unfortunately, the summer and fall have been extremely dry on this part of the island, and a number of our plants from the Spring 2016 semester are struggling. The dune also faced extensive erosion since our last outing, washing away some of the plants we planted on the front of the dune. Consequently, we spent our third semester filling in the same small area of the dune we worked on for Spring 2016 and Fall 2015.

Which leads me to a realization I had while we were working out there this weekend. The two sites we take the students to each semester (Kalaeloa Heritage Park and Piliokahe Beach) are different in many ways. KHP is a wahi pana (sacred place) and archeological site, which will eventually be open to the public as an educational park. Piliokahe is a public recreation beach. It is also called Tracks Beach because of the railroad tracks nearby which carried sugarcane from the rural fields to the processing plants in the city (the tracks are no longer used, but have not been removed). While both sites are in the Ewa Plain, KHP is more inland, reflecting more of a lowland scrub ecosystem, while Piliokahe is shoreline dune. None of this was the realization I had, as that is all fairly obvious if you’ve ever been to these sites. My realization was in how I view these sites and the importance and meaning of our restoration work there. In my mind, our work at Kalaeloa honors Hawaii’s past, while our work at Piliokahe represents the struggles facing the future of conservation. Our goal at Kalaeloa is to restore the site to what it might have looked like when it was inhabited, to contribute to the physical preservation of Hawaii’s past in the form of the archeological structures, and the intellectual preservation of Hawaii’s past in the educational role the park will serve when it is open. Our goal at Piliokahe is to counter the impacts of public recreation and help the native plants take back the dune from the humans and buffel grass that have slowly overrun it. Our plants at Kalaeloa are protected by a fence, and by Shad Kane and his crew who are developing the park. Our plants at Piliokahe are vulnerable. Vulnerable to the elements and to human ignorance and apathy.

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Bruce instructs the students against the backdrop of recreational use at Piliokahe

The good news is that the older plantings that have established a bit more are still doing extremely well. In particular, the ‘akulikuli plants (which can take up water from ocean spray) were not surprisingly, much less affected by recent dry conditions. Across the older sections of the dune, ‘akulikuli, pohuehue, and naio were still thriving, which shows that if we can just get our little plants past the critical early stage, they will be more successful.

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Successful naio (background shrubs) and ‘akulikuli (foreground vine)

As with past semesters, the students first removed invasive buffel grass from a portion of the dune before planting our plants. Buffel grass is particularly problematic because it is fire adapted. All it takes is one cigarette butt out the window of Farrington Highway right next to the beach, and even a small fire promotes the spread of buffel grass, which recolonizes burned areas much faster than the native Hawaiian plants.

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After that, we planted the following plants (the first three species were propagated by my students. The rest were propagated by Olivia George’s class, or by Bruce directly):

Pōhinahina, poh-hee-nah-hee-nah (Vitex rotundifolia) This native shrub gets its name from its tendency to fall over (pohina) as it grows taller and from the silvery-gray (hinahina) hairs that protect it from the sun. It is native to Hawai’i, but also found in Japan, India and many other Pacific islands.

Pōhuehue poh-hoo-ay-hoo-ay (Ipomoea pes-caprae subs brasiliensis) This vine also assists with erosion control, and is already well-represented throughout the dune from previous plantings, so we know it will do well at Piliokahe.

‘Akulikuli, ah-coo-lee-coo-lee (Sesuvium portulacastrum) This native shrub is common in coastal areas, marshes, lagoons, and rocky shorelines and can grow directly out of exposed coral beds. It is so well-adapted to shore life that it can take up moisture directly from sea-spray off the ocean, despite the salt content of this water source. ‘Akulikuli bears a strong physical resemblance to the invasive pickleweed, and the two are sometimes confused.This plant is also edible – the small, succulent leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.

Aki’aki ah-kee-ah-kee (Sporobois virginicus) This indigenous grass is common along many Hawaiian coastlines. Like many grasses, ‘aki’aki forms extensive underground root and stem systems, making it also an excellent choice for erosion control and soil retention. Bruce identified this plant as the most important of our Piliokahe plantings because of its impressive erosion control abilities.

Pā’ū o Hi’iaka pah-ooh-oh-hee-eee-ah-ka (Jacquemontia ovalifolia subsp sandwicensis) The Hawaiian name of this endemic vine translates as ‘the skirt of Hi’iaka’ – the vine is said to have protected Hi’iaka, the infant sister of the volcano goddess Pele, from the harsh Hawaiian sun as she lay on the beach while Pele was fishing. The vine produces rather pretty thick green leaves and small bluish purple flowers, which resemble a skirt.  Pā’ū o Hi’iaka readily spreads throughout the dunes, and mature plants can be seen in many of the restored areas in the photos below.

Hinahina kū kahakai hee-nah-hee-nah koo kah-hah-kye (Heliotropium anomalum) This endemic shrub also takes its name from silvery-gray (hinahina) hairs that protect the leaves from the sun, and its location near the ocean (kahakai). It is the official flower of Kaho’olawe and is frequently used in lei.

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My students’ plants, all ready for their new home!

My previous comments about Piliokahe representing the future of conservation in Hawai’i are perhaps why I always find the tray of baby plants so hopeful. We have this little army of plants, that we’ve cared for and trained, and we’re going to strategically place them on the dune to fight back against the buffel grass, the dry soil, the eroding waves, the human obliviousness, and they’ll do it one leaf, one flower, one microscopic root hair at a time, with no help from us. And Bruce and I will come back next semester with a new crop of students and a new batch of plants to congratulate the winners and try again in the space left by the losers.

 

 

UH Mānoa Celebrates Arbor Day

Today, the UH Mānoa campus held a tree-planting and tree-give-away event to celebrate Hawai’i Arbor Day. These events are part of the Arbor Day Foundation‘s Tree Campus USA program, which encourages local involvement in planting and awareness of forest and tree issues. If you are like me and grew up in one of the many states that celebrates Arbor Day on the federal date in April, you may be confused as to why we are celebrating it in November. As I learned today, many states celebrate their own Arbor Days to coincide better with local climate. The majority of states celebrate it sometime in April; all but two celebrate it sometime in the Spring. Only Hawai’i and South Carolina celebrate it in winter (theirs is first Friday in December).

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Stand full of give-away plants and new residents of the Hawai’i Hall quad

Anyhow, Tree Campus USA set up shop in the quad behind Hawai’i Hall, complete with ~20 trees to be planted throughout the quad, and six species of plants to give away to volunteers. Van Wishingrad (a UHM biology grad student) and I dropped by to plant and adopt. Van and I both adopted little money trees (Pachira aquatica), and planted a little betel palm (Areca catechu).

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Van and I with our new money trees

Since I teach on Fridays, I was improperly dressed for manual labor (particularly in the footwear department), so much of the work fell to Van. Still, it didn’t take long to get a decent hole dug and our little betal palm all snug in his new home!

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UHWO Native Hawaiian Plant Propagation for Habitat Restoration

The first week of the fall semester, my biology 101 students at UH West O’ahu planted cuttings of three plant species native to Hawai’i: ‘ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum), pohuehue (Ipomea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis), and pohinahina (Vivax rotundifolia). The students have cared for these plants at home for the past two months, and today returned the plants in preparation for our dune restoration at Piliokahe Beach later this month.

The ‘ākulikuli had the best survivorship, with all 6 of the plants still intact. The pohuehue had 90% survivorship (9/10), and the pohinahina struggled the most, with 50% survivorship (5/10), giving us an overall success rate of 20/26 or about 73%.

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Vinery (named by Jaja) has gained 32 cm in stem length and 14 new leaves!

The plants that survived are doing very well. The ‘ākulikuli had an average increase of 5 cm in height and 80 leaves! The pohinahina increased by an average of 6 cm in height and 17 leaves. And the pohuehue increased by an average of 21 cm in height and 9 leaves. More important than the averages, every single plant showed increases in both height and leaf number, indicating that they are all in good shape! Shown below are all the plants, and some of the particularly successful ones with their caretakers. Bruce will come by to pick up the plants next week – he will check them and (if needed) treat them for pathogens and pests before our planting at Piliokahe on November 19th.

Discussing medical ethics and compassion: the story of Henrietta Lacks

Last week in my Biology 171 section, I decided to share a particularly difficult story with my students. We were nearing the end of the unit on cellular structure and function, which ends with the process of cellular division by mitosis. These chapters always focus quite a bit on cancer and the online homework for the textbook I use included a short ABC news segment about Henrietta Lacks.

The short version of the story is that Henrietta Lacks was treated for ovarian cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951, during which cells from her tumor were taken without her knowledge or permission. Henrietta died about a year later, but her cells lived on as the first ‘immortal’ cell line (called HeLa) and exploded the opportunities for cellular research. HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, used to test effects of gravity and pressure for ocean and space exploration, put into nuclear bombs to test radiation effects, imaged and processed in countless ways to better understand cell division and genetic structure and their related diseases. Biomedical companies that sold HeLa made ample profit – you can buy a vial of HeLa online today for about $1,000. Henrietta’s descendants did not learn of this until the 1970s and have never been compensated, financially or otherwise. The long version of the story includes the multi-generational issues of distrust, anger, and indignation that arise not just from Henrietta’s story, but also from other atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the various eugenics movements throughout the United States that lead to the forced sterilization of thousands of women (and men), mostly of color. Which leads to my reasoning for telling these stories to my students:

I tell this story in particular, and others like to it, to my students for three reasons.
1) We don’t often discuss them explicitly, but all the topics we cover in class have a story behind them of who discovered that knowledge, and when, and where, and how, and with whose help (knowing or otherwise). Classes in English or History or Anthropology will teach students to analyze how aspects of race, sex, and gender affect events and perspectives – that is present in science too, even though we rarely talk about it with students.

2) I think we (the scientific community as a whole) often do a poor job of acknowledging and apologizing for our major screw-ups. The ABC video the homework includes paints the story as sort of tragic, but leading to so much good that even Henrietta’s descendants are ok with it now. A more in depth discussion with her family (like those in the recent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) shows a much more complex emotional response. Johns Hopkins sort of apologized to the Lacks family, but the statement focuses more on the fact that Henrietta’s doctors didn’t do anything technically illegal. It is frustrating to me how easy and how common it is to fall into the “but we didn’t know any better at the time” or “but look how much good came of it” sorts of arguments.

3) The majority of my students intend to go into the various medical careers. I want them to know these stories so that they understand why some people are distrustful of doctors and the medical industry. It is not paranoia. There is a very real history of exploitation and injustice and I hope that knowing these stories will help make my students more compassionate towards their future patients.

As I was sharing all of this with my students, I got quite emotional and openly cried in front of all 300 of them. It was a little embarrassing, but I was amazed at the positive responses I got from them. After class, about a dozen students came up to talk more about Henrietta (and give me a hug). I received emails from about another dozen or so students sharing their own personal connections to the story. One student had volunteered in a health clinic and ran into just the sorts of mistrust by her patients that I mentioned. Another has family in the Philippines who pressure her not to go into medicine because of similar stories that happen there.

Another student, Michael Martinelli, was inspired by Henrietta’s story and our class discussion and wrote the poem below, which he performed at the UH Mānoa Poetry Slam that was held last week. He invited me to the event, and I am glad I attended. Michael’s reading was honest and open, and I think his poem does an excellent job of incorporating the different perspectives, and acknowledging the wrongdoing while still keeping a focus on compassion. His poem is reproduced with permission below.

Recently in Biology, I learned some disturbing history,
Usually, I don’t like to focus, on negative aspects,
But occasionally, it’s quite necessary,
I learned about HeLa cells, the implications,
Henrietta Lacks, was her name,
She was mistreated, quite a shame.
Then Tuskegee, and John Hopkins,
Unconsented infections, forced sterilizations,
Untreated diseases, inhuman conditions,
Unbelievably, a complete disgrace,

If you haven’t heard, research it,
You wouldn’t believe me, if I relate.

What can we learn, from this story,
Mistrust and hate, in our society?

Let’s not travel, down that treacherous path,
Let’s together create, a new legacy,
Don’t turn a blind eye, don’t be afraid,
Passive inaction, condones misdeeds,
Allows excuses, for terrible behavior,
Allows horrendous, immorality.

Some might argue, “For scientific progress,
Look at all the help, that we’ve provided,
Saved a lot of lives, it’s justified.
If we hadn’t done, what we did,
We would be behind, half a century.”

That’s a slippery slope, where do you draw the line,
Lets use some common sense, and practicality,
If your that passionate, about your studies,

Test first on yourself, let us know how it goes.

Others might ask, “How do I make a difference?
I’m but one person, in a world full of injustice”.

However, don’t lose faith in our society,
Like a pebble in a pond, ripples travel far,
What seems miniscule, can make a world of difference,
Lets set an example, for our future,
Instill some morals and ethics, in our young,
Teach them about, our history,
Not just the good, but uncaring misdeeds.

I commend our teacher, Dr. Gerhart Barley,
In using her position, to spread some knowledge,
Lets learn from our mistakes, the world is ours,
For better or worse, it’s a conscious decision,
With that in mind, lets be a society,
Of unprecedented love, and soulful caring.

UHWO Service Learning: Kalaeloa Heritage Park

Last weekend, my intro biology students at UH West O’ahu completed their first service learning event at Kalaeloa Heritage Park, an archaeological site and wahi pana (sacred place) managed and protected by the Kalaeloa Heritage and Legacy Foundation. The 77 acres that make up Kalaleoa Heritage Park contain 177 recorded cultural sites. A six-acre section housing 51 documented archaeological features is being prepared as an educational park which will eventually be open to the public. Our role is to restore the vegetation of the park to represent the flora that was present when the site was occupied and eradicate the invasive vegetation that has encroached on the site.

Kalaeloa Heritage Park

Prior to the restoration, Shad Kane took the students on a tour of the park, including the eleven primary archaeological features which will form the focus of the park when it is open to the public. Shad emphasized to the students that the story of the Kalaeloa residents is one of the farmer, the fisherman, and the gatherer, not one of chiefs or royals. The entire ‘Ewa Plain (stretching from Pearl Harbor west to Wai‘anae) including Kalaeloa Heritage Park is emerged coral reef which has fossilized and covered with a thin layer of soil. Consequently, the archaeological features are built of coral ‘rocks’ excavated from the surrounding area and suggest a Tahitian origin due to the prevalence of upright stones in the construction.

The features include:

  • Sinkholes in the coral which access an extensive underground river of freshwater.  Sinkholes were used for agriculture (plants could be planted inside the sinkhole to access the water), drinking water, or burial sites. Some of the sinkholes were large enough to have stairwells carved into them and open into large underground chambers.
  • Storage structures in which food (such as salt fish) and other goods (including bird feathers) were stored.
  • Other burial structures (not in sinkholes) called ‘ahu, which also served as places of personal prayer.
  • Portions of the Kualaka’i Trail which served to link inland resources (for example, kalo fields) with coastal fishing grounds. The trail was documented in early maps of Hawaii, including the well-known maps published in 1825 from surveys performed by Royal Navy Lt. Malden of the HMS Blonde.
  • The largest feature of the 6-acre park is a partially rebuilt gathering and meeting room. The floor of the structure includes a natural raised coral platform in the center, which overlays at least two large underground caves. Shad emphasized that since this was not the home of a chief, the structure is not a true heiau (temple) but was clearly a structure of importance to the residents.

Not all of the features of the park are ancient. The Kalaeloa Heritage Park grounds were once owned by the United States Navy, and still today abut the Kalaeloa Airport with frequent military air traffic. In 1949, a training exercise resulted in the crash of a 3-person plane, killing the men on board. Portions of the wreckage are still visible, and the heritage park plans to erect a memorial to honor the men.

This year, the park had a new addition. Bruce has prepared placards for all of our native plantings, documenting the biology and cultural uses of the plants at the park.

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Our Previous Plantings

Last semester, we tried an experimental planting method called long-stem planting, where much of the stem is planted under ground. Studies had suggested that planting the stem underground encourages growth of adventitious roots from the stem, increasing the plant’s chances of success. We planted ‘a’ali’i and ko’oloa’ula in both traditional and long-stem methods and tracked their success. Though our sample size is small, the long-stem plantings did not seem to fare any better than the traditional method. For both planting methods, a few died, and a few are faring well. Consequently, we’ll stick with the traditional planting method at this site, because the soil is quite shallow, making long-stem planting more logistically difficult.

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A long-stem ko’oloa’ula (pink flag) and a traditional naio (blue flag)

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Naio planted by my students in Fall 2014

One of my favorite parts of our service learnings at Kalaeloa is revisiting our old plantings. Every semester, I see how our plants from previous visits are thriving and taking over. I see fewer invasive plants choking out the archeological features. I see new native plants cropping up that we didn’t even intentionally plant, but which have spread from the seeds of ones we did plant, that are now mature.

I find that I take a lot of personal pride in our efforts here, and it means a lot to me to see the native flora retake their place in this park.  I look forward to the day the park opens and all my students’ hard work is visible to the public.

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This little lonomea is one of my favorites

This semester, we planted the following plants:

Wiliwili will-ee-will-ee (Erythrina sandwicensis) This endemic tree is deciduous, which is unusual in Hawai’i. It is currently federally listed as at-risk. When it was more common, the wiliwili was the preferred choice of wood for surfboards. Flowers and seeds of the wiliwili are also used in lei. The wiliwili is more commonly found in the dry forests of Waianae and on volcanic soil, making the individuals here (on calcareous soil) unusual. The plants we planted today were grown from seeds of the mature wiliwili already growing in the park.

Ewa hinahina eh-vuh hee-nuh hee-nuh (Achyranthes splendens var. rotundata) This shrub is federally listed as endangered and is found in only three places on O’ahu island, including Kalaeloa Heritage Park. The Hawaiian name for this plant was lost, so it’s current name comes from it’s habitat of the ‘Ewa plains, and hinahina which means grayish or silver. The leaves of this plant have small ‘hairs’ which give the plant a grayish or silver appearance and protect the plant from the heat of the sun. Loss of the Hawaiian name means we know little about its historical use or importance in Hawaiian culture.

Naio, nye-oh (Myoporum stellatum) This rare endemic shrub is found only in Kalaeloa and Nanakuli, and may soon be found only in Kalaeloa.  Despite being quite rare, naio is only listed as ‘at-risk.’ It was sometimes substituted for ‘iliahi during the sandalwood trade, giving it the unfortunate nickname of ‘bastard sandalwood.’

‘A’ali’i ah-ah-lee-ee (Dodonaea viscosa): one of my personal favorites, due to its pretty red fruits and its reputation for bending without breaking. This second trait led to the use of ‘a’ali’i as a description of a person who is strong, resilient, or loyal. Previously, it was thought that the plant did not exist in this region, but recent pollen analyses of the nearby Ordy Pond indicate that the species did reside in this area.

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Flowering maiapilo

Maiapilo, mye-uh-pee-loh (Capparis sandwichiana) This endemic shrub is named for its stinky (‘pilo’ means a swampy or otherwise unpleasant smell) and banana-shaped (‘maia’ is the name for banana) fruits.  Maiapilo are closely related to capers and are federally listed as ‘at-risk.’  In early excavation at KHP, Shad discovered wild maiapilo already growing in the area, indicating our little plants will do well here. Maiapilo also attract birds to eat the seeds, which will not only spread more maiapilo plants, but will also contribute to a healthy ecosystem in the park. Some of the more mature maiapilo in the park were in flower when were there.

 

The students also removed invasive koa haole that are creeping in along the road. Bruce will return in a week or so with an herbicide to ensure all the koa haole roots are destroyed.

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#MarthasMom Final Results

The extra credit fruit versus veggie weekend is over – and I have all your favorite #MarthasMom posts right here!

To start off, I want to give a shout-out to my friends who joined in the movement without any extra credit incentive in the class. I even found a good example of my own, courtesy of the Safeway dairy aisle.

My students also found a lot of good examples!

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I particularly enjoyed the students that tested their friends’ knowledge of fruits and veggies. It seems there’s always someone that just prefers meat regardless…

Fruits, vegetables, and #MarthasMom

Today in my Biology 172 class at UH-Mānoa, we covered the life cycle of angiosperms. This comes at the end of a week full of complicated and frustrating life cycles, traits, and structures of different plant groups. Many of the terms (gametophyte? endosperm? sporangia?) and concepts (double fertilization, waaat?) are new and rather foreign to the students. Thus, it adds a little levity to the class when we get to my favorite game on angiosperm day: fruit or vegetable?

Officially, fruits are the mature ovary of a flower, which protects dormant seeds and assists in their dispersal. The common perception of fruits as sweet and dessert-like means that lots of things people colloquially refer to as vegetables are actually fruits. For example, all of the following are fruits: nuts, beans, olives, peppers, squash, pumpkin, pickles, and the list goes on!

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Correction: nasty, bitter, evil FRUITS!

This mis-identification problem is rampant in grocery stores and social media, and pointing it out is a favorite insufferable know-it-all pastime of mine. As an example in class today, I showed a screenshot from my friend Martha’s Facebook page where she had posed a question about people’s opinion of bell peppers. Numerous people discussed their preference of these ‘vegetables,’ but Martha’s mother-in-law Linda brought us hope for humanity when she knew they were part of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, which also includes potatoes (vegetable), tomatoes (fruit), and eggplant (fruit). For the record, I did refrain from being an insufferable know-it-all this time, and calling everyone out on Martha’s wall.

I’m about to accidentally call them all out, though, in a much more public way.  I gave my students an impromptu extra credit opportunity: observe your own example of mis-identification of a fruit as a vegetable and share it to social media with a hashtag that I can track. We discussed several options for hashtags, and voted on the popular ones. The overwhelming first choice was #MarthasMom. I had not actually told Martha or Linda that they would be featured in my class today, but fortunately they both are amused by the notoriety.

So, keep an eye out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (or on all of them at Tagboard, which I just learned about today!) for my students and their #MarthasMom posts over the holiday weekend. In fact, feel free to join the movement if you see an example yourself! I’ll screenshoot some of them to post here next week for all our enjoyment.

UHWO Biology Students Propagate Native Hawaiian Plants for Habitat Restoration

As part of our ongoing service learning and habitat restoration component of the introductory biology courses at UHWO, my class recently started propagating cuttings of native Hawaiian plants. The students will care for their plants throughout the semester and then plant the cuttings at Piliokahe Beach as part of our dune ecosystem restoration project.

Bruce Koebele, our resident service learning coordinator and expert on Hawaiian plant propagation, visited the class to get the students started on caring for their own little keiki plant.

Step One: Prepare the Media

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Top to bottom: peat moss, perlite, black cinder

Our first step was to prepare a suitable potting media. We used a 1:1:1 mix of peat moss, perlite, and black cinder. This mix combines the water retention capabilities of the peat moss with the physical integrity (ie lack of decomposition) and aeration/drainage capabilities of the perlite. The black cinder provides the local ‘flavor’ of volcanic rock. Though it is not totally clear why, endemic Hawaiian plants seem to propagate better with the inclusion of cinder in the potting media.

Step Two: Prepare the Plant

Bruce brought three plants for us this semester: ‘ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum), pohuehue (Ipomea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis), and pohinahina (Vivax rotundifolia). All three of these plants are native to Hawai’i and are common in coastal habitats, making them ideal for planting at the Piliokahe Beach dune ecosystem.

Preventing disease in new cuttings is important. Even relatively resilient plants are more susceptible to disease when you’ve cut them open for a while. Consequently, our potting media was pasteurized and sterilized, and the cuttings themselves were washed before being planted. Once everything was all clean, the students trimmed leaves from the stem to provide underground support and cut the stem at a node. The fresh-cut stem was then dipped in a rooting hormone to encourage the cuttings to develop roots.

Step Three: Planting and Data Collection

Plants were then planted in the media-filled pots, and placed in a large plastic tub with a little water in the bottom. The tub protects the plant from desiccation until it is able to develop enough of a root system to support its water needs.

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My little pohuehue

Since we are scientists, we will also be tracking the growth of the plants from now until we plant them at Piliokahe Beach. This semester, I’m propagating a pohuehue, shown at right, which is currently approximately 14 centimeters tall, and proudly sports 7 leaves. At this point, we can be certain there is no root growth. In the future, the presence of new stem growth and new leaves will indicate sufficient root growth to support new above-ground growth; however, we obviously will not uproot the plant to measure root growth.

Step Four: Future Care

The plants will live in the UHWO Biology Lab for a few weeks until they are stable enough to move home with the students. Each student will then care for their plant at home, until we bring them back to campus in October for the Piliokahe planting. Each week, the students and I will re-photograph our plants and document any changes in height or leaf number and any other notes on the health of our plants. I have full confidence that we will experience 100% survivorship and that all our little ‘ākulikuli, pohuehue, and pohinahina will soon get to start their new lives on a dune at Piliokahe Beach.

Monster Quest 2016

For the past decade, a group of herpetologists from across the country have gotten together every summer to hunt herps in an event colloquially termed ‘Herp Quest.’ The exact location and quested herp varies from year to year, though generally focusing on rare herps in the desert southwest. For the past several years, Herp Quest has been held in the Kingston Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California in search of a California Gila Monster. Gila monsters are found in northwestern Mexico, Arizona, and southern Nevada, and although their range extends a bit into southeastern California, they are only rarely found there. The difficulty in finding a gila monster is compounded by the fact that they spend the vast majority of their lives in underground burrows, only occasionally coming to the surface to feed and mate. This is perhaps why the group has not yet been successful…

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from left: Becky Chong, Bob Thomson, Levi Gray, Brittney White, Amber Wright, Kyle Edwards, Anthony Barley, me, Ian Wang

In addition to hunting monsters, there is also an ongoing research project between Bob Thomson and Amber Wright at UH-Mānoa and Greg Pauly at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Folks associated with this project are spending ~2 weeks  traversing a handful of sampling locations throughout the Mojave collecting various lizards and surveying lizard populations. Consequently, this year’s Monster Quest was held near Kingston Peak, just north of the Mojave National Preserve, which is the one of the team’s sampling locations.

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View from our campsite near Kingston Peak

Monster Quest, then, is a conglomeration of actual scientific research, ‘freestyle monstering’ (which sounds like a mash-up of the Monster Mash and the Thriller dances, but is actually just wandering around looking for gila monsters), general herping (same as ‘monstering’ but just looking for any herp), and campfire camaraderie fueled by bourbon.

We found all sorts of awesome animals. Some of the ones pictured below were formally collected (killed and preserved for current research and long-term museum collections), others were tissue-sampled (a small clip of the tail is taken and preserved), and others were just admired, photographed, and released.

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For me, not being a herpetologist and never having been to a herp quest, there were a lot of new experiences. I’ve done my share of field collecting, but it functions in a fundamentally different way when you’re collecting plants. Most of these animals were caught with a noose (a short loop of string on a telescoping fishing pole), or (for the larger ones) simply grabbed by hand. I am terrible at both of these methods. I hesitate, my hand-eye-coordination is poor, and I feel bad for molesting the animals. Consequently, I relegated myself mostly to photographing 😀

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Becky (left) and Levi (right) coordinate on noose-ing a whiptail

The good news is, I had a fabulous time getting comfortable holding the animals. If you’ve ever worked with live animals, you know there are right ways and wrong ways to hold living things that don’t really want to be held. You want to make sure they are stabilized and safe without injuring them or yourself. You also want to take a cheesing photo with them because they are so cute and adorable.

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I wouldn’t say I was ever afraid of snakes, per se; however, I am definitely not super comfortable around them. And (prior to this trip) I would have said I could never hold a snake without my holding its head so I’m sure to not to be bit. That, however, was before I met the sweetest and most snuggly gopher snake (photos above). I held that snake for over an hour, and she curled up in my arms, laid her head on my shoulder, curled around my neck, and even gave me little snake kisses (which I maintain was not ‘testing my tastiness’ as others suggested :-D). I absolutely fell in love with her and named her Snakey McSlithers. Gopher snakes are not part of the research project, so she fortunately was released back to her home after our snuggles. A couple of the herpers on the trip, Adam Clause and his undergraduate student Ben Thesing, set up some professional shots of many of our animals (complete with lighting set-up and arranged backgrounds – it was impressive), and I plan to get in touch with them to get myself a quality photo of Miss McSlithers.

Don’t worry, we didn’t *only* see herps. Despite its reputation as a desolate wasteland, the desert ecosystem is very much alive. We saw a variety of desert birds, mammals, insects, and plants. The packrats were a bit annoying considering they ate all our tents (not a joke – one ate a hole in a tent and then camped out there until the tent’s owner returned to sleep).  I really wanted a good picture of a jackrabbit. I had a desert ecosystem pop-up book as a little girl, and I loved the page about jackrabbits (yes, I was a nerd even then). Jackrabbits are, however, quite difficult to photograph, unless you prefer your shots blurry and of mostly back legs. Ian also found a tarantula hawk wasp, which are beautiful and super cool – gravid females sting and paralyze a tarantula, then lay an egg on it and bury it in a burrow; the wasp larva then feeds on the (still living) tarantula until it pupates into an adult and burrows out of the spider’s abdomen. Remarkably vicious, considering adult tarantula hawks eat nectar.

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While I was playing with snakes and photographing flora and fauna and having a refreshing Bud Light Lime after freestyle monstering, the actual science was happening. Greg Pauly led the crew to prepare the samples we collected during the day. Prepping involves recording all the data on the animals (species, sex, weight, length, collection location, etc), humanely euthanizing the animal (in the same way the veterinarian does for a pet), surgically removing the liver (for DNA analysis), and injecting formalin to ‘set’ the animal into a hardened pose for long-term curation. The photos below show the collected animals at various stages of this process.

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In addition, Bob, Amber, Greg, and Anthony performed transect surveys of lizard populations. At each of their sampling locations in the Mojave, the group performs three transects. A transect is just a straight line across the landscape along which you take data. Often, this is just counting the numbers of different organisms or species you see. In the photos below, you can see the four align themselves along a particular direction, spread out, and walk some distance (I don’t remember how far), documenting the herps they see along the way. This is the least invasive data collection, and provides population estimates across space and (when repeated every year) through time. Each of the researchers carries a GPS unit while walking the transect – Amber uses these to make really cool color-coded maps of all the transects performed each year.

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On Sunday, we drove back to Las Vegas. The research team will continue on to the other field locations, but the rest of us flew back home for our own jobs 🙂 On the way, we stopped to see a unique rock art installation, called Seven Magic Mountains. Kyle gets full credit for bringing this little bit of culture to Herp Quest.

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You can see the full photo collection of the trip at the Thomson Lap Flickr Stream.