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Dr. Sheila Conant, UH Mānoa Zoology Professor Emerita

March 6, 2014
  • Conserving Biology, Little by Little

Since 1977, Professor Emerita Sheila Conant has given annual gifts to UH, and for 27 of those years she made her gifts through payroll deductions. Now retired, she’s switched to providing annual support through recurring monthly gifts using her charge card.

Former chair of the Zoology Department at UH Mānoa, Dr. Conant gives “because there are programs that I really feel need support. Even though I can’t give very much, my students and I generally worked on programs that weren’t that expensive – where even a little could make a difference. I learned that even a few hundred dollars could be a great help. Through payroll deduction and now a recurring electronic funds transfer, I can spread my modest gift over the course of the year without straining my budget.”

National recognition of academic contributions

Consistency and dedication are Dr. Conant’s hallmarks in her research and her work with her students in conservation biology. 

Last year, her academic contributions were recognized nationally when the American Ornithologists’ Union awarded her the Ralph W. Schreiber Award. The award honors extraordinary scientific contributions to the conservation, restoration and preservation of birds and their habitats.

Dr. Conant deeply appreciates this recognition. She explains, “We get far less funding for native bird conservation than other states or geographic locations in proportion to the number of rare species. We’re in the middle of the Pacific and we’re doing the best we can, wondering if anyone on the mainland is even noticing. So it was fantastic to me to win this award and it means a great deal. It shows that people are paying attention to what we’re doing out here.” Read more about Dr. Conant’s research and awards.

Inspiring future conservation biologists

Dr. Conant credits Professor Emeritus Dr. Dieter Mueller-Dombois for playing a crucial role in her career. Early in her career she was working on a research project on the island of Hawai‘i when she was forced to leave for personal reasons, moving to California to teach. A year later, she returned to Hawai‘i jobless and willing to work for free if only to get back to the conservation research that she’d left behind. She contacted Dr. Mueller-Dombois who hired her to work on his forest ecosystem project and that opportunity laid the groundwork for her academic career at UH.

In turn, she has played an important role for the next generation of conservation biologists. “The reward of an academic career for me is the success of my students. It really makes me feel good when a student says, ‘Oh you know I took that course from you, and I really learned a lot.’”

One of those feel-good moments happened at the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference where Dr. Conant was participating on a panel and Bill Raynor, one of the other plenary speakers, said that a class he took from Professor Conant had greatly influenced him.  Today he is director of the Indo-Pacific Division of The Nature Conservancy. And there are many other students in conservation and land management throughout the islands thanks to Dr. Conant’s inspiration and training.

Keep your eyes open for new discoveries

Another of Conant’s professional pleasures is being in the field observing and discovering.  “If you educate yourself about the natural history of a remote place before you go – whether it is on the northeast slope of Haleakala or Nihoa Island – and you keep your eyes open, you can be ready to make discoveries or gather important information.”

Her sense of wonder and fascination with nature and her patient dedication to observation have fed her discoveries. Among them are discovering two new species of mites living on Nihoa finches and two new species of trap door spiders on Nihoa and Necker islands. The latter begs the question of how these ground dwelling insects travelled to these remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands when they don’t create silk spinnakers like other species of spiders.

Over time, some of her early observations are cause for sober reflection. In 1975, she went on an expedition to the Alakai on Kauai – one of the last trips when native Kauai forest birds were relatively plentiful. At that time there was only one extinction in the previous two hundred years, but within ten years, four species that she had observed on that trip would be gone.

Continuing dedication to conservation biology needed

Now retired, Dr. Conant said, “I hope the biology department continues to offer courses in conservation biology and strengthen its expertise in terrestrial biology ecology and conservation. Here in Hawai‘i, we have the most fantastic examples of evolution and we have the most tragic examples of endangerment and extinction. It would be great to see the biology department at this university increase its commitment to facilitating the study of the unique terrestrial biota of Hawai‘i and the need to protect it and the need for science to support and guide that.”

If you would like to learn how you can support UH students and programs like this, please contact us at 808 376-7800 or send us a message.