UH grad student to study endemic plant on Kauai

LIHUE — University of Hawaii graduate student Seana Walsh was awarded the Eloise Gerry Fellowship to continue her research on a critically endangered plant endemic to Kauai.

The plant — the olulu, or “cabbage on a stick,” Brighamia insignis — is considered one of the most unusual in the Hawaiian flora. In the wild, only one is thought to survive, clinging to a sea cliff along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, according to a UH release.

“Having been born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands, I have witnessed the rapid extinction of numerous plant and animal species found nowhere else on this planet,” said Walsh, who was born on Kauai and raised on Maui.

Walsh attended Maui Community College before completing her undergraduate degree in Botany at UH Manoa in 2011.

“I have a great desire to focus on conserving and protecting Hawaii’s flora and fauna,” she said. “This feels only natural to me, and I am committed to a career that will advance these goals.”

As an undergraduate at UH Manoa, Walsh got her start in research with a grant from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. She now works with graduate adviser Curtis Daehler, a professor in the Department of Biology.

Walsh will use her graduate fellowship to conduct a pollination study of the plant. Its fragrant yellow and white flowers are believed to be adapted for moth pollination, but no aspect of the species’ reproductive biology has been investigated experimentally.

Using a small set of cultivated plants under the care of staff at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Limahuli Garden, Walsh will observe the plants during the day and night to determine if any local pollinators are visiting its flowers.

Walsh will also document various aspects of the unique plant’s floral biology, including the volume of nectar it produces and its nectar sugar composition. She will conduct a breeding system study to assess whether the plant can form fruit and viable seeds on its own.

If the plant is found to be self-incompatible and no wild pollinators are found, hand-pollination may be the only way to ensure its continued survival.

Walsh has been an active volunteer for science education and environmental causes, participating in marine science outreach at James Campbell High School on Oahu and working as a volunteer coordinator for the 2012 and 2013 Hawaii Conservation Conferences organized by the Hawaii Conservation Alliance. In addition to her masters research, she is working as a teaching assistant at the UH Manoa and as a program and data assistant with the Koolau Mountains Watershed Partnership.

The Eloise Gerry Fellowship is awarded by the Sigma Epsilon/Graduate Women in Science National Fellowships Program.

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