Mailani Neal is a graduate student at New Mexico Tech, working towards her master’s degree in physics and astronomical instrumentation. A native Hawaiian and lifelong resident of the Big Island, on the Kona side, she has known since she was nine years old that she wanted to be involved in astronomy. She dreams that one day she will be part of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project on Mauna Kea.
She is recognized in the local community for honoring her Hawaiian heritage, and favoring the pursuit of astronomy on Hawai‘i Island—in particular, gaining unexpected fame while a senior in high school by creating the “We Support TMT” online petition in April 2015. Mailani recalls that at the time, she just wanted to get her voice heard, to have some peace of mind knowing that she at least tried to help mobilize TMT support. Thinking that her Facebook post announcing the petition would gather little more than a few likes from family and friends, she still sounds amazed when she remembers how quickly news of it spread worldwide. At this writing, it has 9,460 signatures.
Mailani credits her education in Hawai‘i for helping her be the person she is today. As she remembers, in the fourth grade, “My teacher had put together a unit in class about Polynesian voyaging and navigation as means to teach us astronomy. The literal harmony and really the complimentary nature of this traditional Hawaiian practice with modern day astronomy inspired my life’s work to become a modern Hawaiian scientist.” She grew up with the mindset that the telescopes and Mauna Kea can coexist.
“I think that how I was raised was very unique because I had the chance to go to a really great school, and I got to take Hawaiian language for five years, but at the same time I got to take the science classes that I loved and experienced the science side as well as the cultural side that is offered here on the Big Island.” Mailani attended Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, and then Hawaii Preparatory Academy for her senior year. During the summers prior to her sophomore and junior years, she participated in the University of Hawaii-Mānoa’s HI-STAR program, “which immersed me into the real-world astronomy environment and also provided me with connections in the local astronomy community.” This led to her understanding of Hawaiian history as one filled with people who were always naturally curious about the nature of the land, sea, and skies around them. Mailani’s path to study astronomy is a natural extension of her ancestors’ natural curiosity, applied to the universe as a whole.
She received her bachelor of science in applied physics with a concentration on astronomical instrumentation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. While at Rensselaer, she interned for two summers at Mauna Kea’s summit for the East Asian Observatory’s James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). This summer, while at New Mexico Tech, she interns for the EAO remotely as an instrument scientist. After completing her education, she hopes to work for the TMT.
Mailani applauds the observatories’ outreach programs connecting Hawai‘i’s students with educational opportunities. She herself can attest: the TMT’s THINK (The Hawai’i Island New Knowledge) Fund awarded her scholarships enabling her to afford college, and the TMT organization connected her with members of the astronomical community, opening the way for her summer internships. That being said, these programs aren’t set to turn everyone into astronomers. “Not every child is going to go to these outreach programs and say they want to be an astronomer, but it can always encourage them toward other careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
The telescopes’ presence on Mauna Kea is, as we know, contested. Mailani hopes that although we are all different, that we can also recognize the similarities we share, and, even if we are not in agreement, be agreeable.
When presented with the idea that astronomy desecrates Mauna Kea, she points out that the idea of desecration invokes the act of intentionally disrespecting or violating a sacred object or thing. Without a doubt, the summit area of Mauna Kea is exquisitely unique: up there, every single sense perception is of something extraordinary. It literally and metaphorically takes one’s breath away. It is like being on a different planet.
In her experience of working with astronomers and engineers on Mauna Kea, willful disrespect or violence simply is not the case. “I thought about the intentions that these observatories have and the astronomers, the engineers, all those who work for it. With my experience of them, I believe their intentions are morally right. I don’t think their intentions are bad or harmful, because they love and respect and revere the mountain, also. Maybe just in a different way.”
The stars led the Hawaiians’ ancestors here. So too they lead astronomers, many of whom, Mealani notes, put down roots in Hawai‘i, bring their hearts here, and also call this their home.