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Science

Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month: NOAA Scientist and NIST Mathematician Lead Efforts in Ecology, Data Encryption


Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders contribute thousands of years of cultural heritage and tradition to the United States and advance the nation in all areas, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. During this month recognizing their heritage, we celebrate two outstanding Commerce employees who are breaking exciting new ground in Pacific Island ecology and next-generation data encryption.

Learn more about a regional team leader at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a mathematician at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who are making an impact at the Department of Commerce and on behalf of all American communities.

Kehaupuaokalani “Pua” Kamaka – NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

As a Native Hawaiian, Kehaupuaokalani “Pua” Kamaka molded a 19-year career at NOAA following the Hawaiian values of Lōkahi (collaboration and cooperation); Mālama (stewardship, to care for); Kākou (communication, for “all of us”); Alakaʻi (lead with initiative by a good example); and Kuleana (a personal sense of responsibility). These values have always been at the forefront during both her time with NOAA Fisheries, and now as she takes on a new role with NOAA Satellites as the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Regional Collaboration Network (RCN).

The RCN was established in 2006 and is made up of eight teams around the country and territories. Many of the complex challenges that drive NOAA missions are place-based and require interdisciplinary approaches and regionally tailored solutions. In her new coordinator role, Kamaka helps her team throughout the Pacific Islands address regional challenges by respectfully engaging and connecting people and resources within the region, while being cognizant of indigenous cultures and the needs of the local communities.

Kamaka’s experience makes her well-suited for her new position coordinating NOAA’s collaborative activities in the Pacific Islands. Kamaka was born and raised on the island of Oʻahu in the ahupuaʻa (a traditional land division that begins at the mountain and extends to the sea) of Kaʻalaea, and currently lives in the ahupuaʻa of Waikane. If you’re wondering where that is, a famous nearby landmark includes the Kualoa ranch. Movie buffs might recognize a few of the movies that were filmed at the ranch, such as Fifty First Dates, Jurassic World, and Jumanji-Welcome to the Jungle.

Kamaka earned a Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology with a minor in environmental studies from Hawaiʻi Pacific University and a Master of Arts in environmental planning from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Her career at NOAA began 19 years ago as an undergraduate student when she stumbled upon a summer internship program targeting Native Hawaiian college students who were pursuing degrees in conservation. Little did she know that would be the beginning of her long career with the agency. That internship turned into a Student Career Experience Program opportunity, then a permanent role with NOAA Fisheries as the records manager and FOIA coordinator for the Pacific Islands Regional Office.

“I feel both honored and privileged to serve in my new role as the Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator, to share the great work that NOAA does across the region while ensuring the voices of our communities are heard,” says Kamaka. “My commitment to this organization, its goals and my community are also intricate parts of a very important weave that ties me to this place. This is not just a job; it is much bigger than that. It is my kuleana to my community and natural resources of our island home.”

Climate change is at the forefront of Kamaka’s mind and work, and she hopes to help further climate-focused initiatives across NOAA’s various offices and programs in her new role. She stresses that as important as NOAA’s satellite data is in the field of climate studies, it’s just as important to make sure the data is easily accessible and interpreted in a way that communities can use. In order to better understand these issues, NOAAʻs Regional Collaboration Teams have convened a series of Climate and Equity Roundtables across the country to gather feedback from community partners that can be used to inform NOAA how provides climate services, engages with underserved and vulnerable communities, and strengthens internal processes to respond to the public’s needs.

Another important element of Kamaka’s work involves furthering the inclusion of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in decision making and hearing their concerns. The indigenous people of the Pacific and around the world have managed their resources for thousands of years through experience and observation. In the Pacific Islands Region, this knowledge is passed down over generations through stories. Kamaka views this combination as a lei – a skillfully crafted composition of flowers, ferns, and natural materials that are woven together to highlight each component in balance with the others.

To ensure that her two children experience growing up in a healthy marine environment like she did, Kamaka and her husband are teaching them that it is their kuleana to mālama the resources of Hawaiʻi so that future generations can share in the joy of living in such a beautiful, ecologically diverse place. As a Native Hawaiian, she feels it is imperative to perpetuate the knowledge, sense of place, and cultural identity that makes Hawaiʻi special.

“In order to move forward and be resilient as our environment changes, we must look to the wisdom of our kupuna (ancestors),” Kamaka says.

Lily Chen – Leader of NIST’s Cryptography Technology Group

Our bank account information, our medical data, and our mobile phone calls and texts are protected every day by strong encryption – mathematical codes that scramble or “encrypt” data in such a way that only the intended recipients can easily decode the data by using a secret “key” that’s like a password. Today’s encryption has been practically impossible for ordinary computers to break. But powerful quantum computers are being developed worldwide that could someday crack the encryption used today and put our private data at risk.

At NIST, Lily Chen leads NIST’s Cryptographic Technology Group, which is working to minimize these threats. Her group runs NIST’s Post-Quantum Cryptography project, which has been holding a worldwide competition for developing the best encryption algorithms that will help secure our information against attacks by a quantum computer. The group has received submissions from 25 countries on six continents.

“NIST has been a leader in cryptography for 50 years,” Chen says, “and I feel privileged at work at NIST and lead this new wave of cryptography evolution.”

Chen, a mathematician, had a different route to mathematics than most. She attended college in Xian, China, shortly after universities began opening back up after having been closed during the Cultural Revolution. Because of a ten-year gap in university enrollment, not all the college students in China were accepted for the majors to which they applied, so the universities selected some students for certain majors.

“I was selected to study mathematics,” she says. “I didn’t have much choice.”

 It wasn’t love at first sight.

“At the beginning I wasn’t very enthusiastic, but after the second and third year I started to like it,” she says.

“I like abstract things, such as literature and modern art. Mathematics is like an art. It fills the imagination with beautiful ideas,” she says.

Chen pursued a master’s degree in mathematics in China. Her supervisor’s research specialty was cryptography, which at the time was a narrow field outside of the mainstream.

During her studies, she encountered a seminal 1976 paper, New Directions in Cryptography, written by two American researchers. The paper described how modern communications technologies were creating new needs for cryptography to protect the privacy and security of information on these networks. The paper turned out to be prescient, as encryption has become a core ingredient for cybersecurity on the internet, in wireless communications and countless other devices and technologies.

Because of her growing interest in computer security, Chen found an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in cryptography at Aarhus University in Denmark. Her advisor “created a very good environment for me to learn and get new research results,” she says.

After Chen received her doctorate, Bob Blakley, a cryptographer at Texas A&M, brought her to the U.S. for an assistant professor position. She credits Blakley as a key mentor throughout her career.

Chen then spent 10 years in industry. First, she went to Silicon Valley, where she joined a company developing hardware encryption devices and participated in creating cryptographic standards. Then she joined a telecommunications company in Chicago and learned how the concepts in cryptography could be applied to early 3G communications networks.

Chen brought her industrial and academic experience with her when she joined NIST in 2005, and it has equipped her to do her job effectively today.  “From the abstract to the real, I like to see how mathematics can be used to solve problems in the real world. Cryptography is so applicable to real life and that makes our work so meaningful.”

If you are a student looking to follow in Pua and Lily’s footsteps, NOAA and NIST offer excellent opportunities to pursue STEM education and research.

NOAA’s Office of Education provides climate and environmental education resources and development opportunities for students ranging from pre-K through post-graduate levels. Graduate students are encouraged to apply for several immersive fellowships, such as the Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, that put them at the center of marine science and policy decision-making in Washington DC. NOAA is also dedicated to sharing the latest climate, ocean, weather, and space science with teachers

NIST has programs for high-school students, undergraduates, and recent graduates. More information, including eligibility and deadlines, on NIST’s Student Employment page. The NIST NRC Postdoctoral Research Associateships Program for recent Ph.D. graduates is another great opportunity to explore science and technology careers!

 



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