Van Velasco

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

  • Zoology (B.A.) 2006

           Five years ago at this time of the morning I would have been putting on a lab apron, layers of nitrile gloves, protective sleeves, and grabbing a bottle of EtOH (ethanol) to sterilize my workspace.  My water bath would be set to 37 degrees Celsius and my cell media would be warm and ready to go.  Working as a research associate at the Hawaii Center for AIDS, then located at Leahi Hospital, I had a variety of responsibilities both on the cell culture side and the business side of the laboratory experience.  I had been prepared for this experience as I had worked in various laboratories over the past years, being the lab manager for UH Maui College (previously Maui Community College) STEM department as a recent graduate from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa). But my passion for the sciences didn’t start there.  I found myself making a career in science long before I graduated and that is my advice to anyone. 

           My interest in science started early in life, but the realization that scientists have the coolest jobs and the most interesting lives happened at UH Mānoa.  Several professors, especially in the upper level courses, inspired me.  The laboratories were thorough, rigorous, demanding and really fun.  Meeting at 6 am on Saturdays for Limnology Lab, trudging through mountain streams with equipment and laboratory mates, and then trying to figure out how to interpret the data; this experience was the life I wanted.  I spent my childhood in the streams of the Ko‘olau’s.  I spent my high school years on the reefs with my three prong.  I hiked not because it was something to do, but because I wanted to see more plants, found the native organisms, climbed big trees, and obtained cuttings as well as seeds.  But how do I get a job that allowed me to do that?

            During my second year in college, I applied for a position at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC) – Kewalo Marine Laboratory.  I found the position through the Research Corporation of the University of Hawai‘i (RCUH) webpage.  I was hired for the job, which I was responsible for laboratory maintenance, seawater systems, and landscaping.  In addition, I cut the grass, trimmed the trees, built lab benches, disassembled centrifuges, and at the end of the day I took out the trash and smashed cans with sledge hammers.  It wasn’t a ‘science’ job, but it was as close as I could get without the degree or experience. This job allowed me the opportunity to get to know and converse with some of the University of Hawai‘i’s top researchers.  Eventually my interactions with the researchers paid off and I was offered an opportunity in a larval laboratory one day a week.  Next thing I know, I was working on boats, camping in remote places, setting up ecology experiments, getting paid to kayak to small off shore islands and survey benthic habitats; I was living a dream. 

            In my senior year, I was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship that paid my tuition, gave me research money, and a monthly stipend.  On one of the field excursions, we stumbled upon an intertidal octopus, Octopus oliveri, and I spent the next two years studying behavior, ecology and population structure under Dr. Celia Smith and at that time PhD candidate Christopher E. Bird.  The program Haumana (now called MARC U*STAR – Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research) allowed me to take nearly every upper level botany and zoology course that was offered, basically for free, and these experiences and courses set me up for where I am now today – teaching.

            I never really thought of teaching as my career of choice, but I realized early on in my science experiences that all researchers are teachers. I also realized that my interest in the sciences was very broad. After taking many credits and working with several researchers, my brain was buzzing with a lot of information.  I knew native plants, genetics, I could weld, fix a boat, and what in the world was I going to do with all of this information. I found myself in a position to either transmit that knowledge or pretend I didn’t have it and continue on my specialized path in the laboratory.  Teaching offered me that opportunity to transmit the passion and knowledge that I gained though my experiences at UH Mānoa. 

            I currently teach high school science at the Pacific Buddhist Academy.  I run my classes, not from the textbook, but rather from investigation and journal articles.  I teach students how to write laboratory reports, keep laboratory notebooks, make algal and plant pressing, and set up factorial experiments.  We keep track of weather patterns, bird behaviors, plant growth, and spawning cycles on reefs.  Teaching has been by far the most demanding and challenging science job I have had to date and it just keeps getting better as information becomes more and more available and I become a better conduit of that information.

            From my story, I hope you take away that it is possible to follow your dreams and that the sooner you start internships, volunteer opportunities, or jobs, the closer you’ll get to realizing your dreams as reality.  UH Mānoa offered me a place and time to find my footing in the world of science as well as the instructors, faculty, and researchers inspired and encouraged me.


Content Type: 
Alumni Blog
Last Modified: 
01/26/2015 at 3:14pm