Scripps Student Spotlight: Anela Akiona

PhD student and COP27 delegate from Waimānalo, Hawaiʻi focuses on coral reef ecology and how human intervention can help reefs be more resilient to climate change

Anela Akiona is a fifth-year PhD student from Waimānalo, Hawaiʻi in the marine biology program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. She is currently studying coral reef ecology and works with advisor Stuart Sandin, a marine ecologist at Scripps. Akiona received her undergraduate degree from the University of San Diego, where she majored in marine science and minored in mathematics, and has a master’s degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Anela Akiona: At some point as an undergraduate at the University of San Diego, I decided I was going to get my PhD at Scripps, though I had no clue how I was going to get there. Fast forward a few years – I was finishing my master’s degree, debating whether to stay at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa for my PhD. I knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t give Scripps a shot, so, obviously, I was thrilled to get in. In addition to being one of the top oceanographic institutions in the world, I chose to attend Scripps primarily for the opportunity to work with and learn from my advisor, Dr. Stuart Sandin, and for the opportunity to contribute to the 100 Island Challenge efforts. It also didn’t hurt that Scripps is right on the beach and that it meant returning to the city I fell in love with during college. 

en: What are you researching at Scripps?

AA: My research focus is coral reef ecology, specifically how human intervention can help coral reefs be more resilient to climate change. In the past few years, there has been a proliferation of intervention techniques and technologies, but some of them can be quite costly to implement. To bridge the gap between scientists and coral managers, I am using a spatially explicit computer model to simulate how different interventions might help reefs in the Maldives, a country that is highly dependent upon its coral reefs. We are working with local managers to help support them as they create a national strategy for coral management.

en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

Anela Akiona collecting images in Kahoʻolawe that will be used to create a 3D model of the reef.

AA: It is nearly impossible not to be interested in the ocean when you grow up in Hawaiʻi, but I knew I wanted to become a marine biologist (or now ecologist) at the tender age of 11 when my class had a lesson on marine debris. I had perhaps too many research interests over the years that followed, which primarily stemmed from childhood activities like fishing with my dad, snorkeling at Kāneʻohe sandbar, and exploring the nearby tide pools. Eventually, I was drawn to fish, both because they are delicious and also because their proper management is crucial for an isolated place like Hawaiʻi. This morphed into coral reef fish ecology during my master’s degree and has now extended to encompass the ecosystem they rely on.

en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

AA: When I’m not in the field, I spend most of my day on the computer, which has thankfully mostly been in my office on campus, now that almost everything is back in person. Right now I’m working on writing up the first manuscript for my coral modeling project. I’ll also usually have a few meetings throughout the day to talk about project updates or for the student group WMIS (Women and Minorities in Science), of which I am co-director. Some days I’ll dive in the kelp or penguin tank at Birch Aquarium or have lunch with friends by the pier, which helps to break up the day.

en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

AA: My favorite thing in the world is going diving, so I love getting to be out in the field. I’ve been fortunate to go out on a few trips, this year especially, and I am constantly blown away by how diverse coral reef ecosystems are. I’m always surprised by how different sites even on the same island can be. An aspect I especially love about fieldwork is when we are joined by our local partners. I always come away from the trip with a much richer understanding of both the place and how the community interacts with its resources. 

en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

Anela Akiona volunteering as a scuba elf in the kelp tank at Birch Aquarium.

AA: Though I am a first-generation college graduate, my parents have always been hugely supportive of me and my academic pursuits, though admittedly I don’t think they anticipated my being in school this long. I was fortunate to have several mentors while at the University of San Diego, including Dr. Sarah Gray, who provided lots of valuable support and advice as I prepared to go to grad school and who continues to be invested in my success. It may be cliché, but my advisor, Stuart, is someone I hugely admire and respect. He has always believed in me, even at times when I don’t believe in myself. I greatly value his knowledge and advice and know that I will be a better scientist and person for having worked with him.  

en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

AA: Given Scripps’ reputation, imposter syndrome was something I struggled with a lot when I first started my PhD, and it’s still something I work to overcome every day. It can be hard to feel like I deserve a seat at the table, but my advisor and lab mates have been instrumental in reminding me that I do belong, and I do have something valuable to contribute. Part of the root of my imposter syndrome and another challenge I face is that I am one of the very, very few Native Hawaiians at Scripps. Though it is something I knew was the case in academia, I think it’s taken more of a (subconscious) toll than I expected. Surprisingly, I have found a community on Twitter, where I have connected with kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) scientists at other institutions – some of us even co-authored a paper together: Who are we? Highlighting Nuances in Asian American Experiences in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

AA: My goal is to return home to Hawaiʻi and work for an organization like NOAA Fisheries, doing research that informs management (while getting to dive!). I also hope to be a mentor and advocate for other Native Hawaiians in STEM.

You can find Anela on Twitter at @AnelaAkiona.

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