Gail L. Grabowsky Kaaialii, Ph.D., is a marine biologist and assistant professor of biology at Chaminade University in Honolulu. Her interests are in Developmental and evolutionary biology; invertebrate zoology, ecology, biomechanics and environmental science. She is also Environmental Studies Program Coordinator; Consultant to Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council; and Hawaii Academy of Science elected Councilor. Kaaialii is also a competitive paddler and champion rough-water swimmer.
How did you choose your present profession?
I have realized, as I look back on that part of my life that I have already lived, that I have never chosen a profession. I have always, somewhat impractically, had some passion and tried to build a life around it. My initial passion was wondering how life got here and gets here (renews itself) with each generation. I guess this was my "questioning origins" phase. This passion carried me through undergraduate and graduate school. Actually, if I look back at my undergrad majors, zoology and classical studies, they both addressed origins: the origin of life and the origins of the kind of thought I was using to investigate beginnings: scientific reasoning.
I think what happened next was that after studying biological origins I began to feel more than ever the awesome, complex wonder of the unfolding of biodiversity and the "value" of things so long and convoluted in the making. My love of the generative processes was translated into a love of the products of those processes. My passion's focus shifted. Instead of continuing to study the processes, it became more important to defend the "products" of the generative processes.
Not surprisingly, one of my modes of trying to impress others of the value of all life is to share with them the processes that have created it and to help them view each living organism as the triumph with a enrapturing history that it really is. I don't think, however, that this is the most successful way to help most people recognize the value of a life; the best way to do that is to let them experience the organism (or the ecosystem) first hand, to have it appeal to their evolutionary instincts as awe, respect, fear, beauty..., which have arrisen out of our own formative processes.
You can tell someone of the origins and evolution of the great cats or you can have them look into the eye of the tiger. Both methods work, the latter, thanks to history, requires no time in the classroom.
So in summary, as my passions changed from a love for the processes that create life to a love of the life that results, so my career went from an investigator of processes that produce variety to a teacher and sharer of the value of variety.
What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
If you don't have extreme passion for the "environment" do not make it a life profession. It can be a downer. There is a lot of depressing information, ignorance, denial, finger-pointing; politics and economics which often lead to choices that don't favor all species and ecosystems. This is not a profession for the non-committed!
But, if you are optimistic, believe it's a most meaningful pursuit, don't mind being part of a "movement," enjoy complex challenges and respect the many different systems for valuing nature that exist in the world, go for it!
What do you like best about your profession?
I feel that being an environmental educator/scientist is extremely necessary today. I feel I have a meaningful life because I am part of an effort to do something that I believe is UNIVERSALLY good -- not just good for certain people or my family or community but good for us all -- and that includes all life forms.
My career deals with real world, real important issues. I sleep very well at night knowing that I am trying to make a positive difference and less well knowing that bringing about real change never occurs at a rate that satisfies or seems ample. If I do research it will always be applied. I have only so many heart beats left and I want them to go towards ameliorating the negative changes brought about by our actions. I know this sounds extreme, but I am a person of high intensity -- sort of like a Klingon -- so I will pursue whatever it is I pursue with big effort. I have chosen that which I think is most pressing and most undeniably for the Universal Good.
What web sites and references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work that was featured inThe Shape of Life series?
Oh dear! I know the Waikiki Aquarium is having a The Shape of Life theme this Spring (2002) and I and others will be giving talks. I also have one publication that I really like about the evolution of an anterior end... a head.
Evolution 48(4):1130-1146. 1994.
Beyond that my life has taken such a turn from just (the WONDERFUL) echinoderms to bigger, hairier issues that my other publications are about population genetics, albatrosses, etc! I think I provide a good example of a person with a flowing career!