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Ava Anderson Explores Her Pacific Island Heritage With Plant Sciences

Ava Anderson in forest

Internships offer a wealth of opportunities for students who are looking to more deeply explore areas in which they have a passion and areas of unknown interest. They go beyond teaching students about aspects of the sciences and give them the opportunities to learn and grow as people or discover more about their heritage, as was the case with Department of Horticultural Science student Ava Anderson. 

Anderson was allowed to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in Environmental Biology for Pacific Islanders. This experience was made possible by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and is aimed at solving a variety of issues facing indigenous people in the Pacific. The program combined cultural learning and taught undergraduate students about environmental biology within a cohort of students from Pacific Island countries with the hope that they take what they learned to enrich their communities.

pacific islanders research crew
The research crew from the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in Environmental Biology for Pacific Islanders program.

Anderson discovered the program after talking with a friend in the Botany Club here at North Carolina State University. After exploring the NSF website, she applied and was chosen for this program. While the NSF has several programs, Anderson applied for two and was chosen for the beautiful location in Hawaii.

Anderson’s family roots run to the Philippines but she met students from places like Palau, Tonga, and some native Hawaiians while there for her 10-week adventure. She joined a project in progress that focused on Hawaiian sweetpotatoes and was part of two additional projects. While she had a lot of fieldwork experience, she helped a program tracking the number of cultivars on the island. Anderson said, “They were doing leaf scans of the sweetpotatoes so a computer could learn how to better assess them, with the hope of finding how many cultivars they have. Supposedly there are around 300 different cultivars but that could be drastically reduced or there could be more depending upon the variability of the leaves.”

Anderson helped to create a protocol and kit that botanical gardens or other sweetpotato growers could use to build a photographic database of any cultivars they are growing. “They want to create a website where all historical and current information resides so that people can look at what they’re growing and how it fits into what they have. People didn’t have the resources for this so the kit was created,” Anderson said. 

This experience brought far more opportunities than doing research though. Anderson had a family friend on the island who acted as a local tour guide, which was an excellent addition to her time there.

Ava Anderson presenting her research
Ava Anderson presented her research “Understanding existing diversity of Uala in Hawaii and helping ot develop ways to make field botany accessible”.

Anderson said the time in Hawaii created an interest in tropical plant conservation. Another favorite experience from the internship was “having the opportunity to learn about my own culture.” She learned a song in her native Filipino language and some Hawaiian songs too. Anderson found the environment was prime for growing her knowledge about not only her culture but those of the other students from Pacific Island backgrounds. 

At the culmination of her experience, she presented her research to community members and researchers alike. The experience of blending aspects of Hawaiian culture, learning about her own, meeting friends, and sharing stories with other students from around the Pacific taught Anderson that, “there is value in blurring the lines of traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge.” 

She hopes that work like the REU: Environmental Biology for Pacific Islanders program will lead to more information and resources that empower natives to gain more access to land they need to grow while also preserving the environment. Without question, though, the mixture of research, cultural learning, and the overall experience of her program will follow Anderson wherever she goes.

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