Research lab takes
in young scientists
A company is stemming theBy Anthony Sommer
tide of Hawaii's 'brain drain' by
hiring whiz kids
LIHUE -- Keiki-Pua Dancil's smile flashed clear across the Aloha Airlines baggage area at Lihue Airport when she spotted Bruce MacDonald.
And MacDonald's grin was just as broad.
MacDonald, a chemist who heads Trex Enterprises' fledgling research lab on Kauai, was welcoming his new lead scientist.
Far more, he was adding one more high-tech whiz kid from Hawaii to his research team: a 26-year-old Maui native who just completed her doctorate in chemistry at the University of California at San Diego.
Dancil, a Kamehameha Schools alumna, was doing something she never thought possible when she went off to school on the mainland eight years ago: She was coming home to Hawaii to work on cutting-edge, world-class research.
"It feels good," Dancil said. "It really feels good. I really didn't think I would be able to come home and work in my field. I didn't expect to be able to come home at all."
Trex in general and MacDonald in particular have made a commitment to hiring talented youngsters from Hawaii who -- for lack of opportunity -- otherwise would spend their career years on the mainland or would accept far less than they could get elsewhere by staying in Hawaii.
Already on board was lifelong Kauaian Nathan Wood, 20, who thought choosing to stay at home would mean giving up on an engineering career.
A National Merit scholar at Kauai High where he graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, twice a first-place winner at the State Science Fair, member of the National Honors Society at Kauai Community College, Wood was working as an auto mechanic at a Lihue car dealership when the KCC placement office tracked him down and told him about the opening at Trex.
Until three months ago Wood thought it was pointless to obtain a mechanical engineering degree he could never use on Kauai: "I like to work on equipment, and I figured being a mechanic was the only way I could make a living on Kauai and enjoy what I was doing. It was that or wait tables at a hotel."
Dancil, one of six children of Daniel and Lynette Dancil of Makawao, Maui, said she went to college only because her mother gave her no choice. "I never really cared for school; I just sort of did it and got good grades," said Dancil, an honors graduate of Kamehameha. "I didn't want to go to college. I just wanted to go to the beach every day and surf with my friends."
Her mother picked Santa Clara University and filled out the applications. Dancil started in pre-med, but a job in a lab and encouragement from a professor steered her to chemistry, and a bachelor's degree. At UCSD she earned her doctorate in 3 years, her education fully funded by a fellowship.
Trex also has two summer interns from Hawaii working nights at a Navy tracking station on Kauai's Makaha Ridge recording data on a telescope the company helped design: University of Illinois student Brandon Shimokawa of Kauai and Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Deanelle Symonds of Maui.
Diversified businessTrex Enterprises is headquartered in San Diego and is one of many subsidiaries of Thermo-Electron Corp. The parent company, which did about $4 billion in worldwide business last year, is highly diverse, conducting pioneering research in everything from paper recycling and biopesticides to mechanical heart valves at facilities scattered in 23 countries.
Its interest in Kauai grew out of an affiliation with Textron Systems, which is supplying optical tracking equipment for the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands. Trex is providing the ultra-thin protective coatings for the highly polished lenses and mirrors.
Particular about projectsTrex looks for projects that require little material or space, said MacDonald, who hopes to have the lab established in a Lihue industrial park by October. And they aim for niche products with specialized applications rather than mass-produced goods for the consumer market.
The Kauai Trex facility, which ultimately will employ about a dozen people, will be developing thin, scratch-proof coatings for mirrors used in lasers.
Wood will operate the equipment, Dancil will be the lead scientist and MacDonald the project manager.
MacDonald also will be working on a separate project using an electric furnace at high pressure in an attempt to produce carbide cobalt tools much harder than now exist for machining titanium, a key metal in aircraft manufacturing.
"Our job is to take these processes, which have already been developed in university labs, into the real world to figure out how they can be manufactured consistently and reliably," MacDonald said.
Other scientists on boardA sister Trex facility on Maui is working on medical equipment that promises to replace X-ray film with digital recording for applications like mammography. Like the Kauai lab, it has sought out young scientists from Hawaii: Gordon Okimoto of Honolulu, who holds a mathematics degree from the University of Michigan, and Wesley Oeoka of Maui, an MIT grad, were among the first employees.
The company can't legally limit recruiting only to scientists from Hawaii.
"But almost every university has some sort of a Hawaii Club, and we make sure they get the word that we're recruiting for jobs in their home state," MacDonald said.
That's how Dancil heard about Trex.
"We're the ones who come out ahead," MacDonald said. "We aren't lowering the bar to attract these young people. I would have had a tough time getting Keiki-Pua if she hadn't wanted to come home to Hawaii. She's that good."
Locals well-adjustedMacDonald, who spent much of his childhood on Guam as the son of a career Navy officer, is especially sensitive to the cultural obstacles mainland scientists face moving to a place as rural and far away as Kauai.
"It can be tough being away from the familiar cultural events and apart from a large scientific community for a social life or separated from your family by thousands of miles of ocean. Kauai isn't an easy place for everyone to fit into.
"But for Keiki-Pua and Nathan, this is home, this is all familiar territory and it's where they want to be. That makes a big, big difference. They won't need to spend any time or energy adjusting."
Dancil agreed: "My dad's a plumber and all my aunties and uncles are in service jobs. Most of my friends work construction. I can speak pidgin in public and switch to PhD at work without even thinking about it."
Which is not to say her transition has been completely smooth.
"The first time I went to the grocery store and looked at the total on the cash register, I was in shock," she said, grimacing. "There really is a price to paradise."
MacDonald said he doesn't worry about being out of the loop professionally on Kauai, and neither should his proteges.
"Professionally, distance isn't a factor," he said. "You can keep up just fine with all the latest literature (via) the Internet.
"What scientists love to do most is go to conferences and present papers. We're budgeting for lots of airfare. The only real disadvantage is lack of access to a good library, but the UCSD library has a great fax machine."
Offer he couldn't refuseMacDonald said Trex also has a good record of taking care of its people.
"Nathan will get his engineering degree. Trex will cover the costs, probably even give him a part-time job if he goes to UCSD," he said.
How long did it take Wood to accept Trex's offer?
"I jumped at it. Well, I checked them out on the Internet first. They have a really good Web site and I was impressed," he said.
But there's still a little, lingering it's-all-too-good-to-be-true doubt: "If it doesn't work out, hey, I love working on cars. I've always got that to fall back on."
Are you from Hawaii, but living somewhere else? Email us at email@example.com to tell us your views on why you moved away, what might lead you to return and what Hawaii can do to retain its 'best and brightest.'
We'll present a digest of your responses in a later edition.