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Native knowledge

January 10, 2023

Blending ancestral gifts, Indigenous roots and science to protect the oceans

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Cliff Kapono is looking out onto Honoli‘i Beach on the east side of Hawaii’s Big Island, and the water is brown.

That’s not unusual — brown water has occurred on this coastline for thousands of years. But it can be a threat to coral reefs. When sediment, often due to runoff from heavy rain, gets into the water, it blocks sunlight from reaching reefs. It can even smother coral, leading to coral bleaching and potentially coral death.

Centuries of brown water, you might think, would have smothered any coral here long ago. Yet somehow, a reef exists — an anomaly Kapono noticed while surfing.

Kapono, an analytical chemist and an assistant professor in Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation and School of Life Sciences, and a faculty member at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, isn’t the kind of researcher who spends all his time in the lab. He is also a professional surfer and a Hilo native of Hawai‘i, as his people spell and refer to their homeland. Those experiences, combined with his scientific education, give him a unique perspective on the places he’s trying to protect. 

“What I’ve noticed from surfing this wave just outside of town is despite having constant brown water throughout the year, there’s a brilliant reef that exists out there,” he says. “Reef and coral species that are only found here in Hawai‘i, Indigenous coral communities.”

Other scientists who don’t surf those waters may have never encountered that reef, one that the scientific literature suggests couldn’t exist. But Kapono isn’t like other scientists. A professional surfer, a journalist and an Indigenous Hawaiian, Kapono is not just an advocate for the melding of Western science with Indigenous knowledge or for getting into nature and using storytelling to further his scientific work. He is inherently a living blend of all those things.

View of ocean and coastline in Hawaii from above

In Hilo, Hawaii, ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science uses nine labs to research coastal and marine sustainability. There’s also a coastal marine grad school program and ASU Prep Digital, which partners with Kamehameha Schools to provide education tech for K–12. Other partnerships, like ASU’s support of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, amplify Indigenous peoples’ work on the islands. ASU also leads the Core Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Adaptation Partnerships program for the Pacific in Honolulu. Photo by Josh Soskin

Analyzing coral reefs

Through his research, Kapono is trying to figure out why that reef in those silty waters is still alive. His Honoli‘i Project, recipient of a National Science Foundation grant, involves taking samples of that coral — diving down under the water while holding his breath, not with the aid of a scuba tank, like conventional scientists might do — to analyze them in a lab. 

Kapono is an analytical chemist, a title that means, in his words, that he “investigates different molecules that exist in and around us.” He’s trained in a technology called mass spectrometry, an instrument that can identify and characterize molecules we can’t see with our eyes — think testing for pesticides in food, or drugs in urine. 

“I just use these instruments to take an unbiased image of what’s in, say, a glass of water, or what’s on top of your chair, or what’s in your mouth,” Kapono says. “An analytical chemist just looks and analyzes. It’s very surfer style before you catch a wave. You’re just checking things out. ... And when you just sit and watch, you start to find different patterns. You start to find different trends.”

If there’s recently been a storm, or if there’s coastal development, “You start to see the change in this molecular flow, and then you can start to form correlations and ask better questions of, ‘How am I impacting the natural world?’ and ‘How’s the natural world impacting me?’” he says. 

By looking at the molecules found on those corals, he’ll see how they change or respond to heavy rain and sediment, giving insight into how they survive.

“We have ancestral stories that celebrate the coral reef as our oldest grandmother,” Kapono says, “so it’s a project founded in Indigenous wisdom, supported by our athletic ability to surf on it, and the storyline is community driven.”

Man diving under ocean

Pro surfer, chemist and Indigenous Hawaiian Cliff Kapono among the coral reefs near Hilo. Photo by Sarah Lee

Telling science through stories 

Stories are essential to how Kapono does his scientific work — both creating new stories to help people connect to nature and science and sharing Indigenous stories that have fostered his own connection. 

“It’s weird how it’s not very critical to the science industry, and that’s why I feel there’s an opportunity to bring some of that communication in a fresh and contemporary youthful way to science,” he says. 

Through his work with the MEGA Lab, a multi-institutional consortium currently made up of staff from ASU and the University of Hawaii, he’s helping foster both solutions for how to protect the ocean and also stories about that work.

“More of the surface of Mars has been mapped than the bottom of the sea,” Kapono explains in a MEGA Lab video about mapping the reef underneath the famous surfing wave, Nakurukurumailani, called Cloudbreak, in Fiji. “How are you supposed to take care of something when you don’t even know what it looks like?”

“We have ancestral stories that celebrate the coral reef as our oldest grandmother, so it’s a project founded in Indigenous wisdom, supported by our athletic ability to surf on it, and the storyline is community driven.”

— Cliff Kopono

“Stories do lots of things for us,” says Bryan Brayboy, director of ASU’s Center for Indian Education. “They help us think about how we might view the world. They help us understand what our realities are. They help us think about what knowledges are there. We have origin stories that tell us how it is we came into the world and then how we be in the world. So almost all of our stories have some value proponents tied into them that are life lessons and guidance for us.”

Seeing how Kapono thinks about science and stories, and how he disrupts conventional norms, Brayboy feels connected to him — and excited about how his ways of doing things will make ASU better.   

“Cliff is a real chemist, there’s no doubt about that,” Brayboy says, “but he disrupts narrow viewpoints of what it means to be a chemist by infusing chemistry with particular knowledge systems, whether it’s the stories he’s retelling, or whether it’s the stories he’s creating through film, or what he knows as a surfer.”

Two researchers on a boat

Cliff Kapono (right) is a faculty advisor to geography PhD candidate Kailey Pascoe, who also is part of MEGA Lab. Photo by Josh Soskin

Bringing Indigenous knowledge to ASU

Western science is a toolkit for understanding the world, but it’s only a couple of hundred years old. In contrast, Indigenous people settled the Hawaiian Islands around A.D. 400. 

“It’s not just storytelling that persisted through those 1,600 years, but detailed knowledge of how to manage an ecosystem for its future,” says Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Western science alone will not be the answer to our planet’s problems, Asner says. It’s a piece of it, he says, and another piece is not only Indigenous knowledge, but also the Indigenous perspective to connect with nature and reach people. It’s why he’s focused on building a faculty that, he says, “does not treat Indigenous knowledge and Western science as two things that have to come together, but already blend them (as Kapono does).”

After hearing how his partner, Indigenous scientist Haunani Kane, then an assistant professor at ASU, felt about the university, Kapono decided to accept the offer to join the faculty. 

In school, Kapono felt he had to separate the disparate parts of himself. He was hesitant to enter back into a formal institution, but Kane had shared with him how ASU provides an opportunity to bring the blend of science and Indigenous knowledge to the institution — and help amplify it even more to the wider world. ASU leadership, including Asner and Brayboy, among others, listened to his hesitations and were willing to take a chance on a new way of education, while still allowing him his career as a professional surfer, which made him feel comfortable joining the university.

Bringing in Indigenous knowledge systems is not exactly a new way of education, though. 

“It’s an old way, a way before the colonization of all these spaces,” Kapono says. “Before we were told we have to stop speaking wind language and ocean language and tree language.”

“It’s not just storytelling that has persisted through those 1,600 years, but detailed knowledge of how to manage an ecosystem for its future.”

— Greg Asner

Kapono still has that old-way connection to the world and the environment, like through surfing, which he says has been in his family for more than 90 generations. 

“In my family, surfing was always seen as a gift; it’s something that was given to me by my father, and it was given to him by his family,” he says, “and surfing is very important to Hawai‘ian culture and identity.”

Kapono explains that Indigenous knowledge isn’t just in learning how to take care of a place; it’s a specific way of approaching learning. 

“How do we accept knowledge? How do we give knowledge? How do we perpetuate knowledge? And what does it mean to even be a body or a being that can receive knowledge?” he says. “These are all philosophical and intrapersonal types of conversations that we can have while we’re talking about sea level rise or coral bleaching.”

It’s a more holistic approach, he adds, that allows students to feel there’s a bigger picture to their work than writing a paper or finding “the next cure.”

“It’s this idea that a cure actually is a form of knowledge that we can provide further in time, similar to how Indigenous people think seven generations in the future for the actions of today,” he says. 

He hopes that way of thinking empowers people, including his ASU students both online and in person. 

“It gives them some expressions of what it means to connect to other people and to the planet,” Kapono says. “And if they don’t speak their Indigenous language, then maybe we can speak science language. Science, I feel, is a language for all.”

4 ways to make a difference today

Not sure how you can help the oceans? Implement these steps from Cliff Kapono.

1. Get out into nature. “Even if it’s five minutes a day of walking outside and listening to birds, feeling the wind and watching where the sun is, that’s super important to do.”

2. Think about the Indigenous stories that exist already. “There’s so much history of environmental protection through the Indigenous.”

3. Don’t be too critical of yourself. “It’s hard to go no plastic, have zero waste and not use a car. Come in knowing this is a marathon, not a sprint, and forgive yourself upfront.” 

4. Make incremental changes, like skipping plastic straws. “You’re starting to use this environmentally conscious muscle that’s maybe out of shape, and you can start to think about ‘How do I reduce my plastic consumption?,’ ‘How do I reduce my waste?’ and ‘How do I think about alternative forms of energy consumption?’”

Story by Kristin Toussaint, the staff editor of the Impact section at Fast Company. She was previously a senior news reporter at Metro in New York City. Top photos by Josh Soskin and Sarah Lee

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Water matters

January 10, 2023

Human-centered design is providing clean water for Peruvians

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Adam Westmoreland stepped out of the vehicle into the dramatic landscape of Peru. And he took a deep breath in the thin air at 10,000 feet in elevation.

For the next three months, he and other student interns for the nonprofit 33 Buckets would collaborate with the people of Cusco, Peru, to improve water treatment setups. The nonprofit partners with small, rural communities to engineer a customized plan for access to clean water.

In 2015, three then-ASU students started 33 Buckets: Mark Huerta, ’13 BS and ’15 MS in bioengineering, ’19 PhD in engineering education; Swaroon Sridhar, ’17 BS in bioengineering; and Paul Strong, ’13 BS and ’14 MS in mechanical engineering, ’18 MBA. 

Now directed by a different mix of alums with the help of ASU students and Engineering Projects in Community Service, the nonprofit continues to help address clean-water access issues in Peru in collaboration with local communities.

The collaborator: Erin Burgard

When Erin Burgard was 14, she attended a summer camp at the Barrett Summer Scholars program and heard Huerta talk about 33 Buckets’ work. 

“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life before listening to Mark talk,” Burgard says. “I remember feeling passionate about how they worked side by side with communities to make change.” 

Seven years later, Burgard, now an environmental engineering junior at Barrett, The Honors College, was the 33 Buckets aquaculture project and development intern on the ground in Cusco this past summer. It was a role she prepared for throughout the 2021–22 school year ahead of the trip.

Burgard says she came away with a new awareness of what it takes to create long-term sustainable water infrastructure. 

“It takes a lot of collaboration,” Burgard says. “It takes mayors to accept the project, water managers to agree to meet, people to coordinate transportation, translators to help with Indigenous languages, time, planning and faith that it will all work out.”

Burgard says a typical day in her life as an intern was the team working on their laptops at a local restaurant going over interviews with the community, setting up new meetings and creating outlines for future interviews. She and the interns also conducted technical assessments on systems, such as residual chlorine levels, flow rate and reservoir measurement. 

How did she use her engineering skills? “I took data samples of the chlorine levels by filling a test tube with the water, adding a reactant and putting it into a chlorine checker and forming conclusions about how to proceed to further the system’s success,” Burgard explains.

It’s the memories of the people and the places that most stick with her.

“One of my best experiences was working in the community; a family would serve us a lunch of potatoes while we sat on a bench in their backyard in the middle of the Andes Mountains,” she says. “Everything in Peru is very colorful — the woven work, jewelry, clothing and even the Cusco flag is rainbow. The city of Cusco is like a maze with cobblestone streets and walls made of large rocks. It often smelled like burning palo santo wood and a classic Peruvian taste jugo de maracuyá, which is passion fruit juice.

“But something that influenced my thoughts when I was in Peru was how much the communities expressed gratitude for us being there. You can’t know who will remember the information you gave them, but maybe one person will remember and decide to become an environmental engineer, get a degree and come back to the community to continue the process and make change.”

She also understands now what solutions in collaboration with the community mean: “The idea that you can’t build anything lasting until you understand the impact of those changes on the community. It has to be something they can manage without an organization when you leave,” she says.

Group of students in black polos talking

Enviornment engineering students Daniel Hoop and Erin Burgard. Photo by Courtney Lively, ’07 BIS in interdisciplinary studies

The director: Daniel Hoop

Daniel Hoop, ’20 BS in environmental engineering, has been involved with 33 Buckets since 2017, first as a student intern through ASU’s EPICS program. He’s now the 33 Buckets executive director and says each community they work with is unique, and communities in a shared region like Cusco often face similar issues in scope. 

“The contaminant of concern in many of these communities is Escherichia coli, more commonly referred to as E. coli. It’s the primary bacteria that chlorine treatment systems address,” Hoop says.

Hoop says they most commonly see communitywide chlorine drip systems. For communities without clean water systems, 33 Buckets helps them set them up. For others, the nonprofit helps improve the current system to make the water taste better and the design work better with less maintenance. And for yet others, Hoop says that 33 Buckets has developed a novel system called Sistema de Cloro Peruano.

But first, the team listens to the community through formal interviews to hear about challenges, limitations and needs, which is fundamental to human-centered design.

The humanist: Adam Westmoreland

In the summer of 2021, Westmoreland, now a chemical engineering junior at Barrett, The Honors College, traveled to Peru under pandemic conditions with Hoop. During his first trip, he focused on physically prototyping a new water treatment system, known as SICLOP, versus improving the existing chlorine disinfection system.

“The SICLOP addresses shortcomings of the previously used chlorine drip systems,” Westmoreland explains. “It has a much lower demand for adjustments to maintain consistency and automatic response to different water flow rates into the community’s reservoir to match the amount of chlorine needed for disinfection.”

In the summer of 2022, Westmoreland continued his work from that village and processed data from SICLOP to ensure it was still effective. He also began assessments with other communities.

Westmoreland says he felt prepared for his work in Peru despite not knowing what that work would be. Through ASU’s community service course, he learned the process of human-centered design. “The first step in this process is to gather key insight from stakeholders. And that is what I did during my first summer in Peru. 

“My first day, we were taking community assessments of a community in the Cusco region called Totora to understand better what was and wasn’t working with the communitywide chlorine drip system,” Westmoreland explains. “This feedback shaped our work on the prototype, and that feedback guided the requirements we held ourselves to as we designed the system. Once we agreed on a suitable design, I was part of the physical construction of the system, which only took about three days between securing necessary parts and putting it all together.”

Westmoreland says his 33 Buckets experience profoundly changed him. The most significant change that stands out for him after two trips to Peru is how much more open he has become. “The power of working very closely with those you are trying to help and serve greatly impacts you.”  

Pragmatically, Westmoreland says 33 Buckets does a great job listening to people’s needs. 

“The main job of the people in these communities is agricultural work. They don’t get paid to manage the water system; it is all voluntary,” Westmoreland explains. “The priority for any new water treatment system (there) needs passive management where possible with the least amount of adjustments made to the system per day, week or month.” 

The advocate: Risa Fish

Risa Fish is a senior at Barrett, The Honors College. She is working on her public service and public policy degree in sustainability. Her thesis, “The Integration of Human-Centered Design into Policy Systems to Create Long-Lasting Sustainable Change,” grew from her time with 33 Buckets on the ground at ASU and in Peru. 

She didn’t start that way. “I’ve always been interested in sustainability, but I changed my major five times, including a shift from political science and law, before I ended up where I am today,” Fish says. 

Fish is one of the 33 Buckets interns who is not an engineering student, as the nonprofit also relies on marketing and fundraising in addition to engineering and chemistry. Fish worked with 33 Buckets as a social media intern, starting first through a remote internship on campus during the pandemic in 2020. Fish had previously worked on social media campaigns, but none with a mission like 33 Buckets. 

“On the ground in Peru, I focused on getting to know the people and to see how they would interact with us and each other so that I could better understand them and the importance of the work we were doing,” Fish says. “Getting the opportunity to sit with the community members, even with the language barrier, I could tell how compassionate they all are and how much they care for the people in their community.” 

Fish says that process gave her a chance to understand the mission better. “I needed to use that experience to promote 33 Buckets and be a global advocate for water policy and sustainability.” 

Fish was in Peru for three weeks. “We arrived there at night, so it was interesting to see the lights flying into Cusco — the city of Cusco is set up to look like a puma, which is a spiritual animal for them,” Fish says. 

“One of the days I felt the most hands-on was on our visit to Totora when we had the opportunity to host a WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] education seminar for the children in the community,” Fish says. 

Fish says she realized they were educating the future leaders of this community and carving a path for them to one day take over as the water managers of their communities. “This made me feel very thankful and lucky to be there working with people, and it made me realize that we are making an impact at all levels of the community.”

One of Fish’s biggest surprises was how appreciative and willing the community was to work with them. “They have so much compassion for people inside and outside their community,” Fish says. “Before I went to Peru, I said the words I needed to say to advocate for clean water. But after working in the communities and seeing the engineering work we did, I felt the words I was saying. It changes the course of their lives to have easy access to clean water.”

Group of students walking and carrying water pipes

Student intern Risa Fish, Executive Director Daniel Hoop, and student interns Erin Burgard and Adam Westmoreland. They spent the summer helping communities in Peru build safe water systems. Photo by Courtney Lively, ’07 BIS in interdisciplinary studies

Continuing to help

With 5 million Peruvian citizens lacking clean drinking water, improving access continues to be 33 Buckets’ mission. The experiences created through the nonprofit are invaluable both for communities and for the numerous students involved over the years, Hoop says. Students get to take the wide-angle view to explore what’s out there and what’s possible. 

“Trying to answer questions like how can I do something meaningful? Or how can complex, expensive solutions be available in rural, impoverished areas? And questions like what should the future look like and how do we get there — and putting those solutions into practice is the best way to articulate why I work with 33 Buckets,” Hoop says. 

Get involved 

Learn more about 33 Buckets at or

Story by Jennifer Kite-Powell, a senior technology contributor at She was named one of the top 100 women in technology in Europe in 2012, and shortlisted for best tech journalist by the TechCrunch Europas Awards. 

Top photo: Daniel Hoop has been involved with 33 Buckets since 2017 when he was a student. He's now executive director of the nonprofit that has helped 15 communities build clean water systems. Photo by Courtney Lively, ’07 BIS in interdisciplinary studies