Kaiku Kaholoaa is one of only two Goldwater Scholars from the CSU

Photo: Kaiku Kaholoaa

Caroline Rodriguez Kaiku Kaholoaa at the Business and Information Technology Lab, pre-pandemic, collecting data on a reef-building Hawaiian coral.

May 13, 2021

By Walter Ryce

Kaiku Kaholoaa is one of only two undergraduates in the CSU (the other being from CSULA) to be awarded a 2021 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, which goes to very select sophomores and juniors in the STEM fields on the basis of undergraduate research experience and GPA’s of 3.7 or higher.

Kaholoaa says the award means a lot to him in his pursuit of marine biology, and his family and upbringing has inspired his path.

“Growing up in Hawai'i, many aspects of my life revolved around the ocean,” he says. “My family gathered limu [seaweed] and 'opihi [limpets] from the rocky tidepools, went crabbing on moonlit sands, and would free dive for fish — all to eat at the dinner table.”

He says that from a young age he understood the importance of the natural resources that came from the sea. He could see the negative effects of global climate change, starting with disappearing fish.

Building from his cultural background as a hunter-gatherer, he wants to utilize marine related research to solve issues impacting his community, and to become what he calls a “Kanaka Scientist,” a scientist of Native Hawaiian descent.

For Kaholoaa’s UROC (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Center) work — undertaken with collaborators and mentors Dr. Cheryl Logan, Dr. Thomas Oliver, Caroline Rodriguez, Melissa Vezard, and Leta Dawson — they collected coral vital rates in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to better understand how different species of corals might survive global climate change.

Because he was working from Hawai'i, he woke up at 5 a.m. to communicate with his California research team and attend classes. He says that a major obstacle he encountered from the pandemic was losing focus from sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours. But he solved that problem by listening to classical music and leaving his phone in another room.

The Goldwater Scholarship pays $7,500 towards tuition, which translates to important support for Kaholoaa because he is paying out-of-state tuition.

Through the scholarship he also wants to expand his connection to a network of students and staff who are involved in coral reefs, bioinformatics (using computers and software to better understand biology), or promoting indigenous knowledge.

“Although I'll be the first to strive for a Ph.D., I am certainly not the first scientist in my family,” he says. “Indigenous knowledge has been persistent in my family for generations.”

He wants to get his doctorate at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology and focus on solving coral-related issues using molecular techniques such as transcriptomics (the study of an organism’s RNA transcripts) and genomics (the study of genomes).

“In my future career however, I hope to become a professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa while also mentoring Native Hawaiian students interested in STEM,” he says.

The Goldwater reviewers had to select scholarship recipients from a pool of 1,256 undergraduates nominated by 438 institutions.

“On behalf of myself and UROC, I’d like to express hearty congratulations to Kai on this achievement,” says John “Buck” Banks, UROC director and Goldwater campus representative. “It’s a real testament to the hard work put in by Kai and his research mentors, and it’s a great honor for CSUMB.”

Colleges and universities can nominate only four of their undergraduates each year; CSUMB has had scholarship recipients for six consecutive years (and five honorable mentions).

Kaholoaa — who is also a McNair Scholar and participated in the CSU’s Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology — begins his Goldwater essay: “As a native Hawaiian, many of our cultural practices and resources rely upon coral reefs. However, as global climate change persists, both coral reefs and parts of our culture are at risk of being lost forever.”

This summer, he will be doing research with Dr. Logan through the Logan Lab at CSUMB.