Our Islands, Our Future

A team of Molokai High School girls sought a solution to eradicating “the largest current threat” to Hawaii’s reefs and earned fourth-place in biochemistry at the 2015 INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, PA. The win on an international stage for 16-year-olds Kea’a Davis, Alexandria Simon and Amber “Momi” Afelin was impressive.

“Science has never been my favorite subject,” Davis acknowledged. “It was always something that’s been hard for me to stay interested in.” But that has since changed and Davis said she’s now seriously considering a science-related career. Afelin, the group leader and a junior who’s graduating a year earlier than her classmates, said she learned the value of determination. “You had to be incredibly self-motivated and dedicated in order to pursue this. For us, science was about solving a problem and we worked really hard to find a solution,” Afelin said. Simon said each of the girls had specific tasks yet all of them supported each other whenever needed. “We became each other’s closest friends, consultants and partners.”

Their project, “Investigating Agar Extraction as a Method of Gracilaria Salicornia Eradication,” attempted to find a solution to eradicate the invasive seaweed also known as “Gorilla Ogo” on Hawaii’s coral reefs. Together they developed a process to extract parts of the seaweed that could be sold as agar, a substance similar to gelatin. Remaining plant material not used in the agar could serve as fertilizer, according to the team’s research. “Essentially we’ve taken a very negative aspect of our reef life,” Afelin said, “and turned it into a product that can be sold in stable markets, creating an economic incentive to fund the seaweed’s own eradication efforts with money left over to pay for manpower.” The three girls were able to conduct their research and experiments with the help of former teacher Scott Hemenway. Financial backing for the girls to travel to the international competition was supported in part through MEDB’s Women in Technology grants from the Office of Naval Research and the County of Maui.