Featured Article: October 2021

By: Keolohilani Lopes Jr., UHM MOP Alumnus

Sitting on a ship, gazing over a rack of SCUBA cylinders and watching the sea rush by as we head back to Pearl Harbor from Papahānaumokuākea, I wonder: how did I get here? Exhausted from 40 days at sea, salty from sea spray, the musty smell of damp clothing strong in my nose, I think of Jeff. The University of Hawaiʻi flagship campus of Mānoa attracts, houses, and nurtures some of the brightest minds in marine science. In part, this accomplishment is due to this man and the Marine Option Program. I am in no way claiming to be one of these brilliant scientists, but Jeff Kuwabara, the Iwikuamoʻo (backbone) of the program, is the answer to my earlier question. This article is not my story, nor is it a story of the one or many that have walked through his doors and built a career from the foundation of this program. This is a story of the man, the myth, the friend that has impacted each and every one of our lives in some way.

I think I speak for everyone who has walked through the MOP doors, unzipped the QUEST tent, strapped up their SCUBA gear, drank Jeff’s specially prepared coffee with hot sauce and spices, developed their dream career from everything that is taught at MOP, or received a letter of recommendation or a life lesson from Jeff when I say that his impact on so many people cannot be overstated. I am closer to Jeff’s age than most students, but the intimidation I felt walking into the MOP office quickly faded after speaking with Jeff and understanding his passion for education in marine science. I am 100% sure we all felt that warmth when we initially walked into the office where we would eventually study, socialize, plan outings and dives, and have a snack. It is these qualities that can’t easily be conveyed in grant reports, nor statistically quantified, but the sense of community built at MOP is one of the most important things about this program.

As the next wave of sea spray hit the ship and drizzled down on me, I couldn’t help but think of the four former MOP QUESTers currently on this expedition to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM). Each of these people have traveled vastly different courses to get here, with MOP being the common denominator. Taylor Williams (Photo 1) is currently finishing her masters at the College of Charleston studying a highly destructive algae discovered in PMNM. Kailey Pascoe and Ashley Pugh, meanwhile, are studying corals at UH Hilo, and I am working as a field technician for PMNM here on Oʻahu. I feel strongly that it is all due to our Iwikuamo’o, Jeff Kuwabara, at the Mānoa MOP branch. Outside of this expedition, there are hundreds of MOP alumni working in marine science both here in Hawaiʻi and abroad. Academic advisor lineage trees are frequently discussed to see what “school” of thought any particular Ph.D. came from and who mentored them, and who mentored their mentors, and so on. I would argue that the academic linage tree growing from our humble Mānoa study center would rival any other.

Jeff has developed this program to take the passion each student comes with, nurture it, stoke the flame, and show them the path to attain their goals. After even a short conversation with Jeff, a student unsure of what direction they would like their career to take can leave his office with a plan of action and multiple suggestions for programs to look into and people to contact. Without this type of positive guidance and mentoring, many might not have realized their full potential. Currently Mānoa MOP has the largest enrollment of student faces that the “Mānoa MOP-ulation” may have ever had (Photo 2). Factor in the 16 years that Jeff has been the Mānoa MOP Coordinator and you can begin to see the magnitude of his influence.

Jeff’s humor is a mix of an excitable Steven Wright with the sensibility of Christopher Moore, but less funny, which ironically makes him funnier. I knew after the first few meetings I had with Jeff that he was really cool, straightforward, and most importantly, puts students’ interests first. There was a lot of amazing work done in the PMNM this past field season, and the chaos of the past year has taught me to appreciate it more. Focusing on appreciating things– my education, health, and my fantastic job– brought into focus my gratitude for Jeff Kuwabara, the Iwikuamoʻo of the Marine Option Program at the Mānoa campus, where I and so many others began our journey to better understand the wonders of the ocean and increased our fascination of this beautiful sea and earth.