This Sunday

Heidi Chang

Pioneering UH
botanist sows seeds
of inspiration

Just when you think things may be settling down at Kamehameha Schools, other controversies start brewing. But for a few hours last Wednesday, all that was put aside as the school basked in the glow of genuine pride, turning the spotlight on the lifetime achievements of six extraordinary individuals who embody the vision of the school's founder, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. In a moving tribute, Isabella Aiona Abbott, Noa Emmett Aluli, Nona Beamer, Pualani Kanakaole Kanahele, David Merritt Peters and Matsuo Takabuki received Order of Ke Ali'i Pauahi awards at Hawaii Theatre.

This marks the first year the awards are being given to people who have not only helped Kamehameha Schools, but also never lost sight of giving back to the Hawaiian community as a whole.

At 84, Abbott, fondly known as "Izzie" by her friends and colleagues, is the senior kupuna of this year's awardees. The Kamehameha Schools graduate became the first Hawaiian to receive a Ph.D in any science (University of California-Berkeley, 1950). She was Stanford University's first female biology professor. And in 1977, Abbott became the first professor of Hawaiian ancestry to teach natural sciences at the University of Hawaii, when there were no Hawaiians studying botany.

"She has single-handedly brought Hawaiians into the natural sciences," says Will McClatchey, an associate professor of botany at UH.

It was not any easy path to take. Abbott says growing up with brothers helped her compete in the male-dominated field.

"If I got irritated with men in science, I'd say, 'This is just like your brothers. You can beat them in some way!'" she says, chuckling.

As one of the top seaweed experts in the world, Abbott is best known for her research in identifying seaweeds and their uses as food. She likes being called the "Limu Lady." She's also made a name for herself as an internationally renowned ethnobotanist. In 1992, she wrote the groundbreaking "La'au Hawaii," a guidebook on the study of Hawaiian plants and their cultural uses, which remains one of the best selling books of Hawaiian interest.

For a local girl, born in Hana, Maui, Abbott has come a long way -- thanks in part to the support she received from her kind but autocratic Chinese father ("which means 'do it this way, no talk'") and her Hawaiian mother.

"She could plant anything and make it grow. She would go around and talk to them and water them and love them."

Her mother also took her to the ocean to gather seaweed. A great-uncle taught her how to fish, catch octopus and pound poi. Her late husband, Donald Putnam Abbott, a renowned marine scientist, also was a constant source of encouragement.

For decades, Abbott has been an inspiration for faculty and students like 25-year-old Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz, a graduate student in botany.

"When she was on the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, she helped open doors for native Hawaiians like myself to do research on Kahoolawe," Kukea-Shultz says.

Though she's officially retired, the UH professor of botany emerita still works six days a week pursuing her passion -- peering into a microscope, excited about her current Hawaiian seaweed research, funded by a Packard Foundation grant.

When I first met Abbott a few years ago, while producing oral history videos on Hawaiians, I still recall the joy and enthusiasm she exuded about her calling. Strolling by awapuhi (Hawaiian ginger) and palapalai ferns, she reflected, "I've been excessively lucky because I fell in love with plants and seaweeds, and that seems to me to have been the most important thing because I got supported all the rest of my life to do that. And it's partly because I live in a free, democratic society that I was able to choose those things."

She added, "Looking back on my life, I'd say there are lot of people who should envy me because, I've had a wonderful life!"

Heidi Chang is a freelance writer and producer. She is one of four local columnists who take turns writing "This Sunday."


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