Finding my SOEST niche: From occupational therapy to mathematics to biological oceanography

 FaceCrop_CChangContributed by Chantel Chang

I had invested in a master’s degree and four years of work experience, but I could not imagine another 40+ years of constantly being around people in pain. As I, the occupational therapist (a.k.a. the pain bearer), gazed upon the agony in the patients’ faces during therapy, I realized that my career no longer reflected ‘me.’ Furthermore, I would often see readmissions and feel discouraged because we had just completed weeks of exercises, daily living and safety training. Although I have seen some successes, the failures took too large of a toll on me. The good income and job stability were not enough to lessen my heavy heart.

“I needed a change”

After reflecting on what I enjoyed most since grade school and did best in academically, I concluded that I should return to school to study mathematics. I wasn’t sure how I would survive Calculus III without having done any math for nine years, or where a degree in math would lead me, but I needed a change.

As a second Bachelor’s student majoring in mathematics at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa, I took Oceanography 201: Science of the Sea to fulfill degree requirements. I have always felt a deep connection to the ocean being born and raised in ʻĀina Haina, so my mind was blown away with how much mathematics was in oceanography!  I had no idea that waves could be explained with differential equations, and I never thought about the spreadsheets of data that are available to study the ocean.  At the moment I learned about the math-oceanography connection, I knew that I wanted to be an oceanographer.

Chantel standing in front of her poster at the ASLO/AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting held in Honolulu, HI in February 2014.

Chantel standing in front of her poster at the ASLO/AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting held in Honolulu, HI in February 2014.

After completing my B.S. in Mathematics and a certificate in the Marine Option Program in December 2013, I was accepted into the Biological Oceanography Division with a graduate research assistantship. Finding myself in another transition, I was nervous about not being able to keep up with the biological and oceanographic jargon and concepts. However, having one successful transition from occupational therapy to math, I felt that if I worked hard enough and remained passionate, I could survive. However, along with my stubborn determination to succeed in my new field and my perfectionism, I found that time previously used to visit ʻohana (family) and friends, exercise, and surf was all invested into studying night and day, while drinking unhealthy quantities of coffee.

“My life balance was off”

It took me hours to read one journal article, and then I’d need to read it again… and again… and again to comprehend it.  I felt that I was more than a couple of steps behind my classmates (most of whom knew that they wanted to be marine scientists pretty much since the day they were born) – in my mind, I was miles behind. The most common thing I’d hear from ʻohana and friends was, ‘long time no see,’ and fellow graduate students asked why I didn’t attend social events like ‘Coffee hour’ or Nerd Nite. I realized (after several months of study and no play) that my life balance was off.

Near the end of the semester, I was approached by Anela Choy, a recent PhD graduate and co-founder and program manager of the Maile Mentoring Bridge Program (ʻMaileʻ for short).  Maile is a program that supports Native Hawaiian and other underrepresented minority undergraduate students interested in ocean and earth sciences by pairing them with graduate student mentors within SOEST.  Anela indicated that she was leaving Hawaiʻi at the end of the year and that she needed another local person from Hawaiʻi in the SOEST graduate program to take over her program management duties… and that I was one of about five current SOEST graduate students who were from Hawaiʻi.

I knew there weren’t many of us locals in SOEST, but I was shocked with the lack of kamaʻāina (from Hawai‘i) graduate students in SOEST.  It’s baffling that there aren’t more kamaʻāina in SOEST, when we have grown up with a beautiful ocean surrounding us and active volcanoes nearby.  Perhaps many kamaʻāina are like me; we love Hawaiʻi’s natural beauty, but just havenʻt thought about studying it for a career. I wasn’t sure if I should take Anela’s offer to be an alakaʻi (leader) for Maile because of my life balance struggles from the last semester, but I took it anyway because I thought of the possibility of helping more kamaʻāina realize that great science is being done in their backyards!

“Maile has been a blessing”

I found Maile has been a blessing in helping me to improve my time management skills and feel at home in SOEST.  My position as program manager forced me to actually take lunch and study breaks, in order to attend SOEST events where I could meet colleagues. Although every single person has been very welcoming and I enjoy meeting people from different places, it was interesting to feel almost an instant connection and comfort in meeting other kamaʻāina within SOEST.  They understand the local culture, mentality, pidgin language, and the challenge of being in a rigorous graduate program while being home which involves juggling large extended ʻohanas, friends from ʻda hanabata (childhood) days, and new friends. They recognize the importance of ʻohana, but also the importance of being a part of SOEST because of the need for diversity in creating a more comprehensive and accurate scientific perspective. Being a part of Maile and meeting well-balanced and successful kamaʻāina in the ocean and earth sciences gives me fervent hope that I, too, will be a role model for future kamaʻāina in SOEST, find my balance in graduate school, and a career that is more ‘me’.

Chantel talking to Kapi'olani Community College students at a career mixer

Chantel talking to Kapi’olani Community College students at a career mixer



Chantel Chang is a graduate student pursuing a M.S. in Biological Oceanography, working with Dr. Anna Neuheimer on a project involving biophysical modeling of holoplankton.  She is also an alakaʻi for the SOEST Maile Mentoring Bridge.  In her re-found free time, she enjoys spending time with her ʻohana, surfing, reading, and eating House of Pure Aloha shave ice. Check out Chantel’s professional website!


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HIMB30 – The Prius of Bacteria

By Jennifer Wong-Ala 

Jennifer Wong-Ala

“Ew, you work with bacteria?! Aren’t you afraid of getting sick?” This is what I usually hear whenever I talk to people who are not familiar with the different types of bacteria. When most people think of bacteria, they think of the harmful germs that get them sick. The “good” bacteria I work with are called HIMB30, from the Gammaproteobacteria class. Gammaproteobacteria are common in the marine environment, and HIMB30’s name comes from the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology on the east side of ‘Oahu, where it was isolated from.

So why is this bacteria “good”? HIMB30 is not harmful to human health, and serves many functions. Think of HIMB30 as a hybrid car. A hybrid car uses gas to power its engine and has an electric battery that it can recharge. HIMB30 is heterotrophic — meaning it consumes “food,” or organic matter in this case, like the gas you put in a car, but it also has the ability to use light to create extra energy, much like the rechargeable battery. Genes for phototrophy and genes that have the ability to fix CO2 into an energy source were found in HIMB30, which is unusual in this order of bacteria. With my research, I am trying to figure out how HIMB30 uses these genes to acquire its energy.

The gene found in HIMB30 that has the ability to conduct phototrophy is called proteorhodopsin. Proteorhodopsin is related to a pigment found in your eyes called rhodopsin that allows us to see different colors. This protein is able to harvest energy from the sun and it functions as a light-driven proton pump. A proton pump can be thought of as a gate that allows protons to enter the mitochondria. Since the discovery of proteorhodopsin, many bacteria have been found to contain this gene.

Stepping away from lab work for a moment to pose for a photo with Vanessa

Stepping away from lab work for a moment to pose for a photo with Vanessa

It is estimated that in one liter of water, there is about a billion bacteria. Since there are so many bacteria in the ocean, it must be easy to bring them from the ocean to the lab to start growing and experimenting with them right? Well, it is not quite that simple. It is suggested that less than 1% of the microorganisms in nature are able to be cultivated in the lab today. This being said there are even less microorganisms that can be cultivated that contain proteorhodopsin and this makes them difficult to study. This makes HIMB30 extra special, since it has proteorhodopsin and we have it growing in culture in our lab. I have been doing experiments with the cultures in order to learn more about the metabolism of HIMB30.

Many of you may ask, why is this important?  The carbon cycle in the ocean is responsible for the cycling of nutrients. In this cycle, bacteria play a huge part of the marine food web and process more than half of all the flow of carbon-based matter. There are many different types of bacteria in the ocean. Photosynthetic bacteria use sunlight and convert it into energy. Mixotrophs can use sunlight and organic matter for energy, while heterotrophic bacteria attack other organisms. Now where does HIMB30 come into all of this? HIMB30 has characteristics showing that it may be a photolithoautotroph. This means that it can use the energy it gets from light to convert substances such as carbs, fats, and proteins into simple substances. It also uses a form of sulfur and CO2 as a source of carbon for this to occur. But the big question is how would this affect the carbon cycle in the ocean? It is still unknown how some bacteria utilize the proteorhodopsin gene and the effect it can have on the carbon cycle.

Jenn's OSM2014 poster presentation

Jenn’s OSM2014 poster presentation

In February, I presented these exciting research findings at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting held in Honolulu. This was the first conference I attended and let me tell you, it was huge! At first it was overwhelming, but after a while I got the hang of planning out my day. At the end of the week, I was sad that the conference was over. I learned a lot from the vastly different sessions and I met many great people whom I plan on keeping in touch with for years to come. Science has taken me farther than I had ever imagined and I am super excited that this is only the beginning.

Jennifer Wong-Ala is an undergraduate student at Kapi‘olani Community College and is currently conducting research as a Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) Scholar. She plans on transferring to UH Mānoa in Fall 2015 and earning a BS in Global Environmental Sciences. She is a mentee as part of the SOEST/KCC Maile Mentoring Bridge Program (