Gail Grabowsky Kaaialii, Marine Biologist

Echinoderms are exciting. They are wonderful. It takes some time and some patience to understand them.. You really have to watch, they really don't give away their secrets easily. -- Gail Grabowsky Kaaialii

As a world-class outrigger canoeist, Gail Grabowsky Kaaialii loves speed. But as a biologist at Chaminade University in Honolulu, she studies some of the world's slowest moving animals—

echinoderms. Kaaialii acknowledges that we humans have a body plan that has led us to great success on Earth. But she's unwilling to say that our body plan is necessarily better than that of any other creature.

Indeed, in her study of echinoderms, she's discovered that their bodies are ideally suited to the lives they lead on the ocean floor. “It just goes to show, you don't need eyes, you don't need ears, you don't need to be able to run fast to be a successful organism. You don't even need a brain,"

Kaaialii has concluded that, "When you investigate the lives of other organisms and you see that each is interesting and wonderful, you start to realize that the question of whether any body is better becomes moot, irrelevant.” 

About Gail L. Grabowsky Kaaialii’s career

Gail L. Grabowsky Kaaialii, Ph.D., an Associate Professor and Director of the Environmental Studies program at Chaminade University in Honolulu, received her Ph.D., from Duke University in ecology and evolutionary biology. Kaaialii, has served as a member of the State Environmental Council and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Council and as the Associate Director of the Pacific Symposium for Science and Sustainability.

Grabowsky Kaaialii interests are in developmental and evolutionary biology, invertebrate zoology, ecology, biomechanics, and environmental science. She has won awards for her teaching, research, community service, swimming, and outrigger canoe racing. Grabowsky Kaaialii continues to inspire us all to take action to help the environment. On Earth Day April 2007 her book 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save Hawai'i was published.

Gail Grabowsky Kaaialii
Career Questions and Answers

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 arisen 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 heartbeats 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 in The Shape of Life series?

Echinoderms on the Tree of Life
University of California Berkeley Introduction to the Echinodermata

Gail Grabowski, 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save Hawai'i.  Bess Press (June 30, 2007)