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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 26, 2002

Marine science students get top-notch facility

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

A new marine science lab at Honolulu Community College is being hailed as a masterpiece for teaching students about the ocean. It opens its doors to 150 students a semester and seeks to encourage Native Hawaiians in particular.

Dr. Kakkala Gopalakrishman projects organisms as seen through a microscope onto a screen at the Honolulu Community College marine science lab. The professor landed a grant for the new equipment.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

In a state touted as a center for oceanography, the lab pushes the envelope, with digital dissecting microscopes linked to DVD and VCR output systems, and "eco-seeker" monitors that will measure electronically such things as salinity, oxygen levels and pollution levels of water in aquaculture tanks.

The lab rivals facilities at the better-endowed UH-Manoa for complexity and state-of-the-art, hands-on technology, with sophisticated dissecting and compound microscopes at every student station.

"Very seldom do you get to see these things except in grad school," said professor Kakkala Gopalakrishman, throwing an image of a hairy-legged creature on the big screen overhead. "We've added a new lab course in oceanography because of the new facility. All these years I've been borrowing the zoology lab."

A genius at ocean sciences — he can dissect the leg of a crab larva the size of a pinhead — it was "Gopi" who landed the $160,000 USDA grant that paid for the lab and is opening up new career pathways in marine science, especially for Native Hawaiians.

"If you don't expose students to state-of-the art equipment, then how will they know how to operate it?" said Chris Measures, chairman of the oceanography program at the Manoa campus, who also just put together a new teaching lab for the beginning oceanography course. He admits his students don't have the same capabilities at their desks as HCC students.

"I suspect some areas of campus are working with very outdated equipment," Measures said. "The teaching labs — there's a real problem in getting funds for them."

Don't ask Gopalakrishman to describe the intricacies of his new equipment, however. He has dubbed the black-box control panel "Genie." It's Jon Blumhardt, director of educational media at HCC, who made the pieces work together.

"It's no good dissecting shrimp you can't see," said Blumhardt, hooking up the last pieces of the puzzle to connect student microscopes to the network.

The grant that paid for the lab, plus another in the same amount for internships, aim to encourage Native Hawaiians to pursue science and develop careers in fisheries and ocean resources.

"My project reached out for them," said Gopalakrishman, who holds a doctoral degree from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California. "And this new lab attracts more."

Of 32 students in each of five classes, more than 5 percent are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, and two of the six internships have gone to Native Hawaiians. HCC hopes to add classes next year to take advantage of the new lab.

For Richard Lee, a former deliveryman who is now a water-quality research technician thanks to marine science study at HCC, the new lab is helping him go further. His new employer, Oceanic Institute, is happy to allow him to come back to class twice a week.

"This is 21st-century," said Lee, who went back to school at 38 after a string of menial jobs. "It gives me the up-to-date techniques that oceanography needs."

For third-year marine biology student Mel Apana, 53, the lab means he finally can get the technical understanding of ocean resources he needs to pursue a future in aquaculture or hatcheries.

"It will help students tremendously," Apana said of the new lab as he peered into a tank where he's conducting research on raising Malaysian prawns. A $160,000 grant paid for internships for Apana, Lee, and several others.

"Our heritage was the ocean," Apana said. "My father was an ocean guy — an old-time paddler from the Big Island born in Napo'opo'o."

The seats are filled at long student desks in front of Gopalakrishman, each equipped with a new 1000-power microscope. With the room darkened and the screen glowing, it's like the movies, complete with creatures on the screen.

But the green shapes that look like spaceships are diatoms — microscopic one-celled algae that populate the oceans, provide food for sea creatures and produce a global supply of oxygen. One gulp of seawater and you swallow multitudes of them.

"You're having a nice meal," chuckles Gopalakrishman. "Vegetarian, of course."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.