Extended Interview with Mailani Neal TMT – Hawaiian TMT Supporter


Hawaiian applied physics/astronomy student Mailani Neal, who is currently interning at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, recently sat down with NAOJ astronomer Thayne Currie to talk about astronomy in Hawaii and supporting TMT (the Thirty Meter Telescope). From Yes2TMT: “Mailani talks about why she has advocated for TMT on the Big Island of Hawai’i and why Maunakea is a special place to her. Mailani sees no inherent conflict between Maunakea as a site for astronomy and a place of cultural significance and describes how astronomy on Maunakea has benefited Hawai’i. She speaks about why she believes that TMT is morally right and describes her positive impressions of those who work for TMT.”

I reached out to Mailani for some additional thoughts on TMT and astronomy in Hawaii. Here’s what she had to say:

Astronomy Hawaii: So, you support Thirty Meter Telescope. Is it safe to assume you would love the chance to work at TMT, especially if its built on Mauna Kea? What would it mean to you to work at such a revolutionary telescope right at home?

Mailani Neal: As a kid, I realized that astronomy was what I wanted to do with my life way before my involvement with TMT started. The idea of working at an observatory on Mauna Kea felt like having all the puzzle pieces fit together. It became my biggest dream. All the telescopes on Mauna Kea are wonderful and prestigious, but TMT is on the absolute next level in astronomy’s future. The opportunity to work at TMT, should it come for me, would exceed all of my biggest dreams.

AH: TMT will allow us to reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe. As an aspiring astronomer, what cosmological subjects do you hope to perform more research in over the course of your career? Black holes, galaxy formation, dark matter?

ML: My hopes as an astronomer would be to develop instrumentation at the highest levels of sensitivity and accuracy. This goes perfectly hand-in-hand with the observational capabilities that TMT will provide for us. The combination of high caliber instruments and seeing to depths further than we have before is going to bring us knowledge in a completely new light than before. All these subjects, black holes, galaxy and stellar and planetary formation, and dark matter, are interconnected in ways that we don’t definitively understand yet. Understanding the cause-and-effects of these subjects on each other is my greatest interest and I believe TMT is bringing us 10 steps closer to reaching that level.

AH: I was saddened to learn of the passing of Paul Coleman, the first Native Hawaiian with a doctorate in astrophysics. What do you or hope his legacy will be for native Hawaiians to continue pursuing astronomy?

ML: I had the chance to meet Paul when I was really young and just starting to follow my interest in astronomy. When my studies are difficult, I’ve been comforted in knowing that he followed this path before me. His achievements show me that this goal is attainable for me. Although he is no longer with us, I feel his mana (power) alongside me while I’m pursuing a life in astronomy and it’s now much more than just a personal journey. I feel that it is now my turn to step up to this kuleana, responsibility, that he held for our people. It’s my hope that the generations to come will recognize his connection and foresight in seeing that Hawaiians are people of the stars. I hope his legacy will awaken the spirit in us that our ancestors had to look up at the night sky and bravely venture forth in discovering new places and knowledge.

AH: Science programming is making a big comeback, with space movies becoming big hits at the box office and a second season of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s COSMOS reboot on the way. Who are or have been some scientists or science communicators that have inspired you along the way in your journey?

ML: I’ve been inspired by many great scientists and their accomplishments, but I have to admit that Bill Nye, The Science Guy has been one of the most influential science people in my life. I watched many of his programs in elementary school and it instilled my curiosity to understand the constant happenings in the world around us. I have to thank his encouragement for providing me with this foundation that all scientist posses.

AH: A lot of interviews, polls, and online comments over the last couple of years suggest that a silent majority of native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents support TMT, but are hesitant to get involved due to the sensitive nature of the subject. How do you think they can best show their support and still contribute positively for TMT and astronomy in Hawaii?

ML: I really think the best thing for all of us, regardless of our stance on TMT, is to take some time to gain perspective from both sides of the subject. To support the continuation of TMT, we need understanding and respect. There are many ways people can contribute positively for TMT and astronomy in Hawai’i without needing to directly be outspoken about it. One thing that people can do is to support political candidates that support astronomy. I also think that learning about astronomy’s influence and place in our community provides a way for people to be supportive of astronomy.

AH: As the best site for astronomy in the northern hemisphere, Mauna Kea has been called a “gateway” to the cosmos. With Big Island experiencing a rapid drop in tourism from fear of the volcano, what does Hawaii stand to lose by rejecting TMT or astronomy as a whole?

ML: A few weeks ago, I was on the summit of Mauna Kea for a few nights of observing as part of my internship. During my acclimation night, I went down to the Visitor Information Center to listen to the talk given during the nightly star gazing. I happened to ask the worker if they’ve seen a decrease in visitors with the volcano and decrease in tourism. She said that it was actually completely opposite because Mauna Kea is providing an experience for the visitors since Volcanoes National Park is no longer an option. It’s well-known that tourism is the number one contributing industry to our state, so I believe that this instance shows how the attraction of astronomy can contribute to our economic stability and well-being.

AH: What has been your favorite experience so far in your pursuit of astronomy, working with the telescopes on Mauna Kea, and being involved in supporting TMT and astronomy in Hawaii?

ML: My favourite experience so far has been participating in a program called the Hawai’i Student/Teacher Astronomy Research camp (HISTAR) at UH Manoa. I had the opportunity to participate in this program twice during high school. It introduced me to other students who share the same enthusiasm for astronomy (and science) and I’ve remained great friends with them ever since. We got to spend a week together working on projects and listening to many guest speakers that gave us great insight into field of astronomy. My first science research came from this camp and enabled me to participate in the Hawai’i State Science Fair. Participating in this program really made me feel that a career in this subject field with people like the friends I made would be the right path for me.

AH: The TMT team puts a strong focus on scholarships and science education for kids. What do you want to say to kids in Hawaii who dream of reaching for the stars?

ML: I would tell them that there’s no such thing as a dream that’s too big and that’s why you can never be discouraged. The best advice I could give them is to reach out and express their interest in astronomy to their teachers, the observatories, astronomers, and the Institute for Astronomy, because that’s what did and it has benefited me so much down the road. TMT and the astronomy community are so thoughtful in wanting to prepare this place for a good future in all aspects, not just astronomy. They love to have local kids express their interest and passion in astronomy so that they can offer experiences and advice to help these kids achieve their dreams as they have done so for me.

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