Asian, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month Profile: Dr. Andrea Kealoha

To celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Month, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) highlights the researcher funded by the NIFA, Dr. Andrea Kealoha. Dr. Kealoha oversees the water quality laboratory at Maui College, University of Hawaii, Pūkoʻa hinaʻole.

Tell us about your background in your current field. Who and/or what inspired you to take an interest in public health or science more generally?

I grew up surfing, fishing and diving. Our family gatherings were always at the beach and I spent a lot of time with my dad gathering food like limu (seaweed) and ‘opihi (limpets) along the shore. I learned early on that the health of my culture was intimately tied to the health of our ocean. Even as a child, I could tell that our oceans were changing, the abundance of fish was dwindling, and our beaches were eroding. I realized that it was my kuleana (responsibility) to protect our ocean resources. I became an oceanographer and now study water quality and the impacts of climate change and other stressors on coral reef ecosystem health.

Dr. Kealoha grew up surfing, fishing and diving. These activities sparked his interest in ocean protection. Image courtesy of Dr. Kealoha.

How has the NIFA Alaska Native-Serving and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions (ANNH) program shaped your professional development as a scientist?

Being part of the NIFA ANNH program gave me confidence as a scientist, as well as an educator. I learned how to effectively lead and communicate research projects, manage grants and budgets, and establish and facilitate collaborative relationships. Through our NIFA ANNH projects, I also had the opportunity to mentor students, which was such a great learning experience for me!

What advice do you have for current students at Alaska Native-Serving and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions who might be interested in pursuing a similar career path?

Indigenous peoples intuitively understand environmental processes, so I believe we are uniquely positioned to excel in careers in environmental fields. I strongly encourage any interested student to pursue this path. It is also very important to seek out mentors who will provide support, guidance and opportunities along the way. And of course, once successful, provide mentorship and support for those beginning their own academic and professional journeys.

Dr. Kealoha takes a water quality sample from a coral reef to understand the impacts of population reduction and tourism on water quality. Image courtesy of Dr. Kealoha.

The theme for this year’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is “Building Legacy Together: Our Communities’ Journey of Strength and Resilience.”

What hopes do you have for your scientific field and its impacts, and for your students?

I have high hopes for my students! I’m probably one of the few Native Hawaiians with a Ph.D. in oceanography. In 10 or 15 years, this number could double or triple. As the sciences diversify, so will the insights and solutions we develop to address water challenges. I think this will be key to the strength and resilience of our communities.

Top photo: Dr. Andrea Kealoha, NIFA-funded researcher. Dr. Kealoha oversees the water quality laboratory at Maui College, University of Hawaii, Pūkoʻa hinaʻole. Image courtesy of Dr. Kealoha.

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