This year’s conference on island sustainability gave the first Pacific Islander who went to the ocean’s deepest point her first chance to deliver a keynote address.

Nicole Yamase, a doctoral candidate, also is the third and youngest woman to visit Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, where fewer than two dozen people have been. She shared with attendees of the University of Guam-led event the journey to get the 29-year old Pohnpei native to this historic milestone, including long days while attending the prestigious Xavier High School in Chuuk.

“The girls that lived on the opposite side of Xavier High School, which was my younger sister by the way – she had to catch the bus at 5:30 a.m. The sun was still down, it was still dark. Luckily for me, I lived in the middle of town, so I got to catch the bus at 6:15 a.m. So you can see every day, just waking up and going to school was a challenge, because we had full 12-hour days,” she said.

Yamase pursued higher education, applying for programs she wasn’t technically eligible for at the encouragement of advisors in order to hone in on where her studies would take her. These internships were key to fostering relationships that opened important doors for her, including her historic visit to the trench.

“What I want you to see is how these summer internships really paved my way into graduate school, how it married my interests, provided fieldwork experience, and my networking, and really made me a strong candidate for the PhD program: in the marine biology graduate program at (University of Hawaii) Manoa,” Yamase shared.

The scientific mission she participated in this year is part of an ongoing effort to learn more about the deepest parts of the world’s oceans. She spent nearly two hours in a submersible vehicle called a “limiting factor.”

“It’s the only commercially certified submersible that can go down to any ocean depth multiple times,” she said. “In the center is this perfect circle, titanium ball – 90 millimeters thick all around. That’s the only thing that’s stopping us from being crushed on our way down to the Challenger Deep, and around it, it’s packed with syntactic foam that’s just filled with tiny balloons.”

From mapping to identifying new marine species, the work Yamase was a part of is invaluable to the global community. For her personally, the work is an integral part of cultural values and heritage.

“I’m one of the lucky ones that can say I’ve seen the ocean from the shallow reefs all the way down to the deepest part of the ocean. And yes, everything from the top to the bottom is connected. The ocean is our lifeline, so we need to take care of our oceans, because if our oceans thrive then we thrive.”

Yamase said if she “had all the money in the world” she would love to open a marine laboratory in Pohnpei so that islanders won’t have to travel across the globe to further their education, and to help foster a new generation of Micronesian scientists.

“I understand that a lot of students back home don’t have the resources and opportunities to come out, to have the same opportunities that I had as an undergrad. So my goal is to bring that home to them,” she said.

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