Brialyn Onodera: A Hawaiian Engineer Passionate about STEM in Hawai‘i’s Future

Brialyn on the top of DKIST

Before wrapping up our conversation, Brialyn asks to put in another good word for the Akamai program in Hawai‘i. She’s now a mentor in this workforce initiative that connects students studying in Hawai‘i with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) internships around the state and even in California. “It’s such a wonderful program because they aim to get locals into STEM careers. And that’s really what I’m about. I don’t want people in the future to think, ‘We don’t want to have a telescope here because [local] people can’t work at a telescope.’ I had that issue before; I thought that a job wasn’t accessible until far in the future when I became a better engineer or something.”

Brialyn learned from her Akamai internships — one with the Keck Observatory on the Big Island, the second with the NSF’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) on Maui — that a rewarding job as an engineer in Hawai‘i was a reality available to her. As someone who loves engineering, space, and her home state, Brialyn is grateful.

Early Academic Interests

Born and raised in Hilo on the Big Island, Brialyn attended Kamehameha schools from kindergarten. Her mother took her to the library on weekends to read more, and enrolled her in extracurricular studies like karate to hone her focus. In particular, she remembers thinking that science and engineering would be in her future because her mom took her to “the yearly Ellison Onizuka day with the university. That’s where I really started to get more interested in space and science. Originally, I thought I wanted to be an astronomer, and then I realized that I didn’t like the math associated with that level of physics that much.”

Not to say that she didn’t enjoy math: Brialyn originally pursued a degree in mathematics at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Overall, however, she sensed since middle school that engineering was her passion and she took all the classes she could through high school associated with engineering. It was a field that presented her with more options to find her niche, not only in astronomy for which she maintained an interest, but also for underwater robotics. “My Hawaiian family is from a small fishing village on the south side of the Big Island, called Miloli‘i, so I was always interested in ocean conservation, and contributing to the eco system, and I felt a deeper connection to more ocean-based systems. There were a few ideas I was playing with. I even interviewed with an ocean robotics company my junior year in college but that didn’t pan out. But I was considering these options at the time.”

She saved money and kept close connections with her family by living with them while attending the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and Mānoa, first pursuing a math degree in Hilo until the subject matter became so abstract it lost the real-world application she valued in engineering. Brialyn initially felt a little compelled to finish what she started, so to speak, with her math degree, but what had initially come easily to her became onerous in spite of her best efforts. She rediscovered her pace after she started her studies in engineering in Mānoa. “I tried to get math minor, and that still didn’t work out. I realized, I didn’t need to prove that to anyone, not even myself. I was much happier doing engineering anyway, and the things were so much more interesting and so much more cool.”

At Mānoa, she received two Akamai internships, one at the Keck Observatory on Maunakea in 2015, and in 2016 another at DKIST. Facing her upcoming graduation, Brialyn thought she would need to find a job off-island. “I had my senior year in 2017, and the summer after senior year I was considering moving off-island. I didn’t really want to work at Pearl Harbor; a lot of people like to go there, the naval base there is a pretty popular for engineering grads, especially mechanical engineers. I didn’t think that was something I wanted to do; if I was going to work for the military I decided I would move off-island.”

Good fortune presented itself in July 2017: someone at DKIST called to see if she would be interested in applying to be an assistant mechanical engineer. She did, and now she experiences the happy conjunction of her favorite things: a career in engineering, living in Hawai‘i, and expanding our knowledge about the universe with DKIST, currently the largest (4.2 meter) solar telescope in the world.

Let’s Get Nerdy

As in any science, doing astronomy is all about precision: eliminating all sources of interference one can and, if they cannot be eliminated, then being able to reliably track and account for them. Two of the things Brialyn has been working with at DKIST involve thermal and vibrational matters.

Recently she’s worked on a plate coil project, which involves cooling the DKIST interior. Lest the acronym distract us, DKIST performs solar observations. “Since the telescope is looking at the Sun, the enclosure gets very warm, and because of the warmth within this enclosure, the air becomes very turbulent because it’s a different temperature than the ambient temperature, and that causes the air to move around a lot in the dome. That creates thermal ‘seeing effects’ when they’re trying to observe.” Roughly speaking, those “seeing effects” are akin to a mirage in the distance on a hot highway.

Brialyn at the telescope level of DKIST. Pictured behind her is the telescope mount. Its unique design helps to ensure that the light path from the primary mirror to the Coudé floor level is as clear as possible. photo courtesy of Brialyn Onodera

Brialyn describes plate coils as “armor against the Sun” — thin plates mounted outside the dome that have coolant running through them so that the temperature inside the dome is the same as the temperature outside it.  “So that’s a whole scope of work — lifting these plates, securing them so they wouldn’t fly off in hurricane winds, and on top of that working to get piping to them and all of this other stuff. That was a pretty major project that we started last year.”

The summit of Haleakala is at an elevation of approximately 10,000 feet, where the average temperature on a good day is around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Factoring in the facts that this temperature range is not a given, and that the temperature changes throughout the day, creating a thermal system nimble enough to match what’s happening outdoors is quite a feat.

Furthermore: things move, and those vibrations can interfere with signal: something as minor as a fan turning on could ever so slightly shake a mirror, or the table on which a data-collecting instrument sits, or maybe the effect carries to some extent throughout the building. Think back to the day (or ask your parents, or grandparents, about it!) when someone was trying to tune into a TV signal using an old-school indoor TV antenna. You know, back when the foot the antenna-holder stood on made the difference between station reception and static.

Now multiply that by, like, a million.

The DKIST works with Coudé optics, which for present purposes suffices to say involves increasing the length as long as can from the primary light-collecting mirror via a series of reflecting mirrors until it eventually reaches the instruments. In DKIST’s case, that means extending the light pathway to under the observatory floor to the Coudé floor, located right beneath the floor where the telescope is located. The activation of a pump or an instrument or a fan can create disturbances that ever so slightly affect the mirrors, which can affect the light path, which then can affect the clarity of the signal, the observations.

Putting it in the everyday example mentioned before, metaphorically the Sun is the TV station’s transmitter, the Sun’s light is the TV signal, and all of the telescope is like uncle holding the antenna and trying to lock onto the TV channel. The more uncle can be helped to stay still and in the right place, the clearer the received image on TV will be. Brialyn helps uncle — or, more accurately, DKIST — stay still.

A representation of Coudé-style optics, with the mirrors represented in dark blue. Incoming light is in yellow. It bounces off the primary mirror and travels to a secondary mirror, the light pathway now represented in light orange to help it stand out. Then (in reddish-orange) the light is directed outside the telescope altogether, along a series of other mirrors until it eventually reaches the instruments collecting the data. graphic by Michelle Sandell

“The way DKIST works, instead of looking at the Sun as a whole, the way previous telescopes did, DKIST is able to focus in on a specific region of the Sun and that enables it to get a higher-resolution image and study sunspots, the chromosphere, and other things at a much higher resolution. That requires a lot of precision, so I’ve been working with one of our other engineers to mount accelerometers all around underneath the Coudé floor and all around the telescope mount to see at what frequencies the vibrations are happening in correspondence with certain systems being turned on like certain chillers, pumps, stuff like that. I am also observing how vibration propagates throughout the building once a source is detected.

“They’re micro-meter displacements. It’s not necessarily about the focus [of the telescope]. The light path hits 6 mirrors at the telescope level. Then the light beam is moved down to a seventh mirror on the Coudé level and then the beam is split to different instruments that sit on the Coudé floor, along with all the other equipment that’s keeping, basically, the telescope cool. So there’s coolant running through everything that helps keep everything at the temperature it needs to function right. So these vibrations, say, shake a table that an instrument is sitting on — not that it’s visible, it’s 10-8 or 10-9 meters, and we’re trying to see if that affects image quality. Some of this can be adjusted for using adaptive optics [AO], but there is a particular vibration budget that the AO system can adjust for, so we want to dampen as many vibration sources as we can. This is something we’re progressively working on, so it’s always happening. And then there’s other work, like working with the facility thermal systems, making sure all the systems are running smoothly to cool the telescope and everything. That’s pretty much my day-to-day.”

Her other work at DKIST involves procurement — if someone needs a tool or an instrument, Brialyn does the research to get the right part — and updating design drawings as new things are build and installed.

Brialyn also helps with observing. “I support observing by helping to manage the status of different systems around the telescope. For instance, they have an HMI, human-machine-interface, program that you can use to turn on coms and chillers and stuff, and that’s to help monitor the temperatures of different systems. There are currently 12 subsystems that feed the telescope facility’s thermal systems, so the heating and cooling needs of the telescope are pretty significant. They have something like 7 miles of pipe in our facility; it’s very intensive.”

She’s also continuing her education.

“There’s also a learning aspect that DKIST promotes; they want people to feel like they’re expanding in their knowledge. They encourage us to go take a course that’s relevant to the work we’re doing. So I wanted to take a solid-works course, an application used for 3-D modelling, and improve my skills there.” She’s also pursuing an MBA. “With a master’s in business administration I could get more experience doing management, understanding budgets, because eventually when you stay at a place long enough, you become a manager, and I wanted to have more educational experience doing it, rather than just hands-on experience. And I think it’s a very useful degree to have in the world as a functioning adult. So my life is currently just work and school all the time.”

Young Bialyn, possibly the summer before fifth grade, with a robot she built at a STEM outreach event, to collect lunar samples in a Moon-themed arena. photo courtesy of Brialyn Onodera

Complications of Being a Hawaiian Involved in Astronomy

Brialyn acknowledges difficulties she’s experienced in Hawai‘i, as a Hawaiian, around astronomy. But not from her family and close friends who support her. Nor from her peers within astronomy and engineering,

“I never particularly felt like I would have to struggle for any reason relative to my ethnic background and gender identity, since Hawai‘i is so inclusive, especially if you were born and raised here. I think that my experience is a little different, especially from somebody maybe on the mainland. I had befriended someone at the DKIST telescope and she mentioned that, in her experience prior to DKIST, there were people who wouldn’t take her seriously as a female engineer at a facility on the mainland. But I always felt like people really cared about what I had to say, and I feel like DKIST is pretty special in that way because, relatively speaking, they have a lot of female mechanical engineers — actually, not just mechanical engineers; engineers. Our boss, Heather Marshall, is a mechanical engineer, and everyone takes her so seriously, so I never feel like nobody’s not taking me seriously. They’re respectful of my opinions and my ideas, I always felt like, not just at DKIST but throughout my whole experience in college, is that my ideas and opinions were valued and that really enabled me to grow as an engineer. I don’t feel like anyone ever questioned what I knew or my work because I was a female or because I was native Hawaiian. And actually, I feel like more often than not people thought I was pretty good at engineering and I would have a lot of options when I wanted to study with people because we’re all working together really harmoniously; I never felt like it was a challenge. It felt fine; it felt good. Well, maybe it didn’t feel so good when I was doing thermodynamics, but other than that, everything was good!”

Yet she also remembers in 2015, while she was interning at Keck, tensions were running high on the Big Island around the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Spillover effects occurred on Maui concerning DKIST.

“I remember at that time that DKIST, because people were being successful with their pushback on Maunakea, they thought they could go to Haleakala, and I remember that DKIST was getting their primary mirror delivered to them, their 4.2-meter mirror from Arizona. What they were going to do was shut down the park, because it’s in Haleakala National Park, and then transport it up. And then a bunch of protesters formed a human chain and duct-taped themselves together with PVC pipe, putting their arms in the PVC pipe and duct-taping that all together. But the mayor at the time, Arakawa, he reacted very swiftly to the whole thing. He called in the police, they cleared the road and the mirror was able to go up, at least from what I remember.”

Further complications arose. In 2019, Brialyn wrote a piece for Honolulu’s Civil Beat. Her mother pressed her to use her middle name, Kauionalani, in her byline in order to avoid possible backlash, although for her, “It made no real difference to me, as long as I felt like I was saying what I wanted to say.”

DKIST in conjunction with the half-Moon at sunrise. photo courtesy of Brialyn Onodera

As she continued her career as DKIST, the continuing situation with protesters against the TMT affected her.

“This whole situation with the Thirty Meter Telescope has been a big challenge. Working at a telescope is something that I’m very, very proud of. And I just don’t know if I’m going to set someone off by telling them that I work at a telescope? I feel like that, really, has been the largest struggle for me. Especially being Hawaiian, too. It’s just problematic. Some of my friends, we just don’t talk to them about it, and we can be civil about it. And I remember one of my friends was not civil about it, and so I haven’t talked to them in over a year now, which is pretty sad. And there are people who have stigmas associated with it, too. I guess it can be tough to navigate because people seem to think that science is trying to trump culture in some way, when really it isn’t. I feel like science is very inclusive, and some people think that just because it’s not inherently indigenous, it’s like an attack on a culture or something, when in reality I’ve always viewed Hawaiians as impressive astronomers and impressive innovators, working with land and studying the sky. Modern science is an extension of indigenous science. At least it is in my field. So, that’s been hard to deal with.

“And it’s kind of junk, too. Because there are things that I’d normally be really excited about, like I remember when we took our first images of the Sun, and we were able to release them, I was very excited about it. But some of my friends, I couldn’t really talk to them about it. Because there was this underlying idea of where the science should be done, who should be doing the science, I don’t know. Or if the science was an attack on their beliefs or their culture — which was somehow different from mine?

“But for the most part, all my really good friends are really supportive of it; just a few here and there that don’t care for it. But I can still tell them, ‘I feel proud of my accomplishments,’ and they’re supportive of me, just maybe not supportive of the field. It’s kind of complicated, navigating that.”

She’s mostly saddened by the readiness objectors have shown to believe the worst about astronomy. “Some things are really embarrassing, like when people were saying that TMT was going to be powered by nuclear energy, which doesn’t make any sense. And it goes beyond the rumor being ridiculous; it’s the fact that certain people will believe it, and it makes those kinds of people look bad — and that tends to be local, Hawaiian people. And I think, if you thought about this rumor, if you didn’t just take it as face value when you saw it on social media for the 5 seconds you read about it and immediately re-shared it, if you thought about it for maybe 5 minutes: it doesn’t make any sense. And it just makes us look bad. That’s junk.”

In the meantime, besides pursuing her MBA, her full-time job at DKIST, and mentoring through Akamai when she can in these Covid days, this May Brialyn became a member of the Mauna Kea Working Group, formed to help improve the governance and management of Maunakea. She is steadfast in her commitment to her culture, to the Akamai program, and a thriving future for Hawai‘i.

“I don’t want people in the future to think, ‘We don’t want to have a telescope here because people can’t work at a telescope.’ I had that issue before; I thought that a job wasn’t accessible until far in the future when I became a better engineer or something. There’s this disassociation and in my experience with Akamai I was able to really experience what it is like to work with professionals in the field, and I felt like staying in Hawai‘i and working in STEM was more accessible, which is why I’m a big supporter of TMT, too. Because I want people in Hawai‘i to work with STEM, because I think STEM careers in general are great for society, they offer great benefits to individuals and to us as a whole, most of the time. I think that it would be great for future generations that locals will be able to think, ‘I can stay here; I can get my PhD or my mechanical engineering degree and I don’t have to work for the military and I can contribute to our community in this meaningful way.’

“And you can contribute to all of Earth by studying astronomy, or any other STEM field, and feel a sense of pride, and not just feeling like you’re working at a hotel, making some random dude in Florida richer.

“That’s why I’m such a huge fan of Akamai, they really make that feeling accessible for you. And that’s what I want to see for future generations; I want to see them feel like they can stay in Hawai‘i have good professional careers here, and make Hawai‘i a better place. That’s my passion.”

Brialyn on the top of DKIST
Brialyn atop DKIST. She’s surveying the enclosure, in the middle of a cloud, to install some of the plate coils. She says, “Even the crummy weather wouldn’t stop us.” photo courtesy of Brialyn Onodera

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