Honeycreepers and Mosquitos: Hawaiian Researcher Kyle Dahlin

For one summer as an undergraduate, Kyle Dahlin, currently a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Georgia, had to take a ferry to a small island for field work. “If you didn’t leave by a certain time, you were sleeping on the island. Or you could swim,” he remembers. “That was fun. Much more fun than pure math would be.” This field work, at  the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, was part of a two year program in mathematical biology where he and a biology undergraduate were placed on joint research team. He relished the opportunity to learn biology from his peer and teach his peer about math. “Pure math has one right answer,” he reflected. “In ecology everything is really complex and messy.” His work has lived at the intersection of biology and mathematics ever since.

Though he found a field he loved, he was daunted by the lack of Indigenous representation – in math specifically, and in higher education in general. “[It wasn’t] just that my family hadn’t had higher education experience,” Dahlin reflected, “but I didn’t have too many people in the Native Hawaiian community who’d gotten to that end goal.” 

To find support and community, Dahlin participated in several programs specifically for students of color or Indigenous students in science and math. As an undergraduate, he participated in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Arizona State University (ASU). While he did meet other students of color, he didn’t find the Native community he’d hoped for in the program. But it did lead to an impactful chance encounter. “They introduced this guy Kamuela Yong and I thought ‘He’s definitely Hawaiian,’” Dahlin remembers. Kamuela Yong, co-founder of Indigenous Mathematicians, was completing his postdoc at ASU at the time. Finding not only a Native mathematician – but a fellow Hawaiian mathematician – was invaluable. “It was kind of magical that we overlapped,” he reflected. “He’s been a really good career mentor to me since.” 

He met more Indigenous people in STEM during his graduate degree at Purdue University. While there, he was accepted into the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Program, a prestigious fellowship that supports American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian STEM graduate students at several universities across the U.S. Though Sloan participants came from diverse cultural backgrounds – from tribes across the country – they faced similar challenges and isolation in academia. 

His graduate degree also allowed him to hone in on his interest in addressing ecological challenges in his home state. His advisor was a mathematical epidemiologist focused on infectious disease transmission in humans, and Dahlin was able to focus on wildlife. His work requires him to integrate theories from ecology into mathematical models to better understand disease transmission. This means understanding how species interact with each other, how they interact with the environment, and how their populations change over time. A case in point is his recent project focusing on how temperature impacts mosquito borne diseases. Mosquitos are more abundant when warmer, so transmission increases. But if it gets too warm, mosquitos can’t control their body heat, and transmission may decrease rapidly. Past models of this balance, however, didn’t include mosquito mitigation; that is, human or animal reactions to getting bitten by mosquitos, like wearing bug spray. These mitigation strategies limit the rate at which people or other animals are bitten by mosquitos. Integrating this into models gives different predictions of disease transmission than past mathematical models. “[In] math there is one correct answer. There may be a bunch of different ways to come to it, but there’s still one right answer,” Dahlin reflects. “In ecology, everything is so complex and messy and there are so many interactions driving things, that there often isn’t one answer.” 

Dahlin isn’t just interested in studying ecology because the subject area is of interest, but because of his desire to give back to his home community. “We have a lot of ecological problems back home,” Dahlin says of Hawaii. “If you look at the distribution of endangered species across states, Hawaii is at the top. And if you look at the list of monetary resources by state under the endangered species act, Hawaii is not nearly as high as it should be.” Math can be a useful tool to solve problems with limited resources. Previous research, for example, looked at Hawaii honeycreeper preservation, comparing and contrasting different methods for regrowth of their populations. Whether through mosquitos or honeycreepers, “I’m always focused on making contributions in Hawaii,” Dahlin notes.