Learning through discovery

Learning through discovery

Hawai‘i Pacific University Associate Professor of Biology Catherine Unabia, Ph.D., developed an interest in native Hawaiian plants as an undergraduate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Unabia had been attending college in California and transferred to UH when her dad got a job in Hawai‘i. 

“Coming to Hawai‘i where there are so many endemic Hawaiian species, I got really interested in the plants but also the animals that interacted with the plants,” Unabia said, as she gave the example of birds feeding on the ohia tree. “I had a couple of mentors at the University of Hawai‘i who saw my interest and helped me to get out into the field sites and gave me books.”

Unabia now shares her knowledge and deep appreciation for plants with HPU students. She began teaching at the university in fall 2000 as an adjunct instructor of Plant Biology. 

“In the lab course, students learned to propagate Hawaiian plants by seeds and cuttings. Since about 2003, we have been planting these at the native plant restoration site by Kawainui Marsh, Na Pohaku o Hauwahine,” Unabia said. “Each year we measure survival, growth and reproduction of these plants as part of our lab work. We have an area that is almost all planted by HPU, and many of the small trees that were planted are now overhead.”  

Over time, Unabia grew more interested in the Hawaiian culture, dating back to the people voyaging from Tahiti. She said the ancient Hawaiians had all the food and materials they needed to subsist.

“They brought most of it with them including some collected from other places — such as the sweet potato from South America — and not many of their food plants were found in the forest here,” Unabia said. “It’s an interesting story of plant collectors and master gardeners.”

Realizing there was much to learn from the Hawaiian culture about respecting and managing resources, Unabia decided to start the General Education class, Ethnobotany: Plants and People.  


As it is a civic engagement course, Unabia and her Ethnobotany students help with planting at the Kawainui restoration site. There are also a myriad of hands-on learning opportunities including how to make a lei or an ipu (Hawaiian instrument made from a gourd).


“It kind of depends on the interests of the students,” she said. “This past semester there were several students interested in health, so we did a fair amount on medicinal plants.”


In addition to teaching undergraduate students, Unabia serves as a faculty advisor for the Master of Science in Marine Science program. One of her students is Cassie Turner (HPU BS ’13). 


Through a two-year U.S. Department of Agriculture, Center for Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture  grant awarded to OI of HPU, Turner works with Unabia and Shrimp Department Director Dustin Moss (HPU BS ’97), Ph.D. The team has been studying the aquaculture potential of Hawaiian polychaetes (worms) for feeding shrimp broodstock. There are farmers in Thailand and other places who have started raising local polychaetes to feed their shrimp, avoiding the high cost of importing. 

"What OI does is buy frozen polychaete worms from the U.S. East Coast, and they spend thousands of dollars importing those for feeding their broodstock,” Unabia said.

At the start of the research project, Turner had a list of about 40 potential marine polychaetes to study. Unabia said Turner collected more than a dozen different types, but most of the worms were eliminated from the study. The shrimp did not like to eat the worms or the worms did not grow well or large enough to serve as feed.

“Cassie found one living in sediments, Marphysa sanguinea, that was pretty easy to culture and the shrimp like to eat it, and she did the nutrient analysis showing it is comparable to if not better than the worms OI is importing,” Unabia said. “She is finishing her data and will defend her master’s thesis in the fall.”    


Whether she is teaching undergraduates or mentoring master’s candidates, Unabia empowers her students to learn in an interactive way.


“I always approach the classes with ‘what questions are we looking at’ and ask them to figure out questions,” she said. “That’s what scientists do; they ask questions. Then once they have questions, ‘how do you get the answers?’”