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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 1, 2010

For eye surgeon, 1981 fair had 'huge impact'

Advertiser Staff

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Neal Atebara was a co-winner of the 1981 Hawai'i fair, then placed third in international competition.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Neal Atebara

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Dr. Neal Atebara was born and raised in Hilo and didn't even know about the state science fair when Nettle Yokoyama his biology teacher at Waiakea High School encouraged him to enter.

Atebara was a junior at Waiakea when he was accepted into a science program sponsored by the National Science Foundation and was allowed to join British astronomers studying a planetary nebula called NGC6369 through Britain's infrared telescope atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

"Scientists from around the world would die for two hours of time on the telescope, and here I was, a kid from Hilo," Atebara said. "It was pretty heady stuff for a high school student."

The astronomers were trying to identify different elements of NGC6369, a precursor to what eventually will happen to Earth's own sun before its demise.

At Yokoyama's urging, Atebara turned his astronomy research data into a three-panel exhibit that included a picture he painted of NGC6369, along with a diagram he made of how the British telescope and its instruments worked.

The exhibit and Atebara's presentation made him a co-winner at the 1981 Hawai'i State Science and Engineering Fair, held that year at the Neal Blaisdell Center.

"Honestly, I didn't even know the science fair existed," Atebara said. "But it's had a huge impact on my career choices."

He went on to represent Hawai'i in the international science fair that year in Houston, and ended up placing third in one of its categories.

Atebara had already been accepted by Yale University, when he entered the Hawai'i State Science and Engineering Fair.

But his success in the state and Mainland science fairs gave him even more confidence that pushed him on to medical school at Harvard.

Today, Atebara is a 45-year-old eye surgeon with a practice in the Physicians Office Building 1 next to The Queen's Medical Center.

"Especially when you come from the Neighbor Islands and a small school, you don't really think too much about things like a career in science," Atebara said. "But after winning, I thought, 'OK. I can compete with kids across the state, and even across the country.' "

Dan Nakaso