An inclusive future with the Thirty Meter Telescope

Yuko Kakazu of the NAOJ and TIO discusses Japan’s contributions and transformative approach toward community engagement at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation
10 June 2024
Karen Thomas
Yuko Kakazu of the NAOJ and TIO

“We will always listen to and learn from the community,” says Yuko Kakazu, the Education, Outreach, and Broader Impacts manager for the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). “My primary job is to listen to and learn from the community, and to co-create education, outreach, and workforce development programs together with Hawaiʻi communities to build a brighter future for the next generation.  As the US National Science Board’s Vision 2030 report highlights, we must reach out to the ‘Missing Millions’ — those historically underrepresented students in the STEM fields. My job is to ensure that our initiatives meet the unique needs and interests of local communities, including the Missing Millions.”

Kakazu adds that TIO has co-developed a variety of programs with community partners that include tutoring, workforce development, indigenous-culture-based education, and environmental protection and conservation. These programs are designed to benefit everyone living in Hawaiʻi, especially underserved students with limited access to learning opportunities and resources. All initiatives are community-led, executed together, and ultimately reviewed by the community.  

What led to your interest in working in astronomy?
US Space Camp! When I was 13 years old, I had an incredible opportunity to participate in the US Space Camp program in Huntsville, Alabama. I still vividly remember the simulated Moon-landing mission we conducted as a team, the thrilling experience of the multi-axis trainer, and my very first experience in an IMAX full-dome theater. I remember they played “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" by C&C Music Factory in the dorm every morning to wake us up. After Space Camp, I also visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where I got to touch a Moon rock.  In that moment, I decided I wanted to become an astronomer.

Full disclosure — I thought science was not for me until I joined the Space Camp program. It was not expected for girls who were growing up in Okinawa. I also spoke very little English at that time. I was with other Japanese youth, as our group was organized by the Japanese science magazine Newton. I am immensely grateful to the Japanese students at the University of Alabama and the Newton staff, who served as our translators. I am also thankful to my teachers, mentors, and peers who have supported me and my dream until this day. I am especially indebted to my parents, who said “Yes” when I half-jokingly asked them about participating in Space Camp in the US. 

They changed my life, forever.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a student of astronomy? Do today’s students face similar challenges. 
The biggest challenge I faced as a PhD student at the University of Hawaiʻi was not finding what I initially set out discover in my thesis survey: high-redshift quasars. I dedicated all my time, efforts, and precious telescope time on Maunakea to searching for distant quasars: redshift above 5.7. I thought my career was over when I didn’t find them. However, instead, I discovered a multitude of “baby galaxies,” which ultimately became the focus of my research. I experienced both failure and serendipitous discovery simultaneously. This is a common experience for astronomers — we often find something unexpected. And this is why observational astronomy is so much fun.

As an observational astronomer, your research focuses on galaxy formation and evolution. What can we learn about the Universe through this research?
Galaxies serve as the fundamental building block of the Universe. Just as we take a census to understand the human population, in astronomy, we undertake similar endeavors to comprehend the past, present, and future of the universe.

For example, by observing galaxies at different distances and thus different points in cosmic history, we can trace the history of galaxies over billions of years. This helps us understand how galaxies evolved from the early universe to the present day. In addition, the distribution of galaxies offers insight into mysterious components of the universe, such as dark matter and dark energy.

Of particular interest to me are "baby galaxies” exhibiting strong emission lines, indicative of recent major starbursts. These galaxies serve as excellent local analogs for studying their counterparts in the early Universe.

What do you see as the most important aspect of your work at this time?
As an observational astronomer by training, I now dedicate the majority of my time to creating education and workforce programs for the next generation. I’m the first female in my extended family of over 300 to have earned a bachelor’s degree. My family, modest farmers in Okinawa, believed in me and the value of education. I had the incredible opportunity to attend the US Space Camp and study abroad at the University of California and the University of Hawaiʻi with scholarships. Now, I feel it is my turn to give back what I received to the next generation.

Building a brighter future with community members through better access to education and workforce opportunities — and creating equity and diversity in astronomy — are the most important aspects of my work and, in fact, are part of my life mission.

What is most exciting or surprising about your work? What are some of the challenges?
I get to work with people from diverse backgrounds, talents, and various age groups, which is incredibly exciting. Collaborating with local community members to co-develop educational programs is particularly rewarding. For instance, last year, we initiated a cultural exchange program in partnership with Hawaiʻi County and Hawaiian cultural practitioners. I had the unique opportunity to take Hawaiian students to my home island of Okinawa. Additionally, I learned the Hawaiian language, hula, chanting, and traditional wayfinding alongside the students, which was a remarkable experience.

Teaching is an integral part of my job, and I love it. Children are like sponges, absorbing knowledge quickly and asking the most innocent yet challenging questions. In Hawaiʻi, the learning loss due to Covid-19 has been severe, with significant drops in math and science proficiency, and over 1,000 Hawaiʻi-island students held back a year in 2022. In response, TIO staff started going to local schools every week to provide one-on-one in-person tutoring assistance. The results have been remarkable, with a 75% reduction in the number of students failing multiple classes. The benefits of tutoring are reciprocal, too. We learn to be better communicators, and it strengthens our sense of community belonging.

The biggest challenge for me personally is maintaining a work-life balance.  I am learning to prioritize, say no, and ask for help when necessary. Being a single mother with a full-time job and community service commitments, while having no family within 4,800 miles, is not easy. I am deeply grateful to my colleagues at TIO who have supported me in difficult situations. My company has a dependent-care program that covers babysitting fees during weekend duties or business travels. Two years ago, when I gave a presentation for the NSF review, my daughter got sick. My colleagues took care of her while I delivered my presentation. They treat me like family.  

In the abstract to your talk, you note: “At TIO, we believe in the community model of astronomy….” How does TIO work with the local community?
As the massive protests in 2019 clearly showed, TIO had legal permits to build a telescope on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi, but we did not have community’s trust and acceptance. The Covid-19 pandemic gave us a moment to pause, reflect, and seek a new approach to local engagement. TIO underwent major changes in leadership, and then our new project manager Fengchuan Liu moved to Hilo, Hawaiʻi in 2021 and formed a new Hilo-based outreach team to better engage with local communities, particularly Native Hawaiian communities for whom Maunakea is sacred. I joined TIO when Fengchuan moved to Hilo, having previously managed outreach programs for the Japanese Subaru Telescope in Hilo.

Over the last three years, we have engaged with over 1,000 community members, more than half of whom are kiaʻi (protectors) of Mauna. We have dedicated considerable time to each person, often spending several hours in discussion. Throughout these genuine and in-depth interactions, both privately and publicly, we learned about TIO’s past mistakes and apologized for our actions that contributed to community division. While many of these conversations begin with harsh criticisms, they consistently evolve into constructive exchanges, offering valuable insights into how we can improve as community members. From these grassroots dialogues, TIO’s education, outreach, and broader impacts program have emerged. Operating under the theme of Community Partnerships, we are collaboratively developing diverse programs with community input at every stage.

We are profoundly grateful to the communities in Hawaiʻi for sharing their inspiring thoughts and visions with us and guiding us how to be a good neighbor.

What do you see as the future of TIO? What would you like to see?
Ultimately, the decision for the future of TMT on Maunakea rests with the Hawai’i and Native Hawaiian communities. We believe it is our kuleana (responsibility) to learn from our past mistakes, to do what is right for the community, to help heal divisions, and to contribute to a brighter future for everyone in Hawaiʻi, especially those in underserved communities.

My vision for TMT is to be a catalyst for positive change and to serve as a community model of astronomy that upholds the values of respect, inclusion, and community stewardship. This involves conducting scientific research in a way that respects and integrates local indigenous culture and traditions. It also means uplifting and enriching the lives of the local community, ensuring that our workforce reflects the diversity of our community, and working together with the community to build a brighter future for the next generation.

What would you like attendees to learn from your talk at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation?
TMT is now a completely different organization with new leadership and a new Hawaiʻi-based community engagement team. In the past, TMT worked very hard to meet the highest legal standards for construction. We now understand that pursuing a legal approach alone was too narrow. This contributed to division and conflict within the community, within families, and within friends.

Our new approach to community engagement begins with being in the community, respecting the indigenous culture, land, people, and history, and proactively reaching out to the people who protested against the project. We are now partnering on initiatives developed and led by the community to improve the outcomes for keiki (children) and the environment. We believe in building a model observatory, practicing community-based astronomy.

Furthermore, the underlying issues encountered by TMT extend beyond Maunakea and Hawaiʻi. The best sites for ground-based telescopes are often remote, high mountains that are sacred space for Indigenous peoples. As the Astro2020 decadal survey pointed out, “Astronomy has not fully engaged with communities with a cultural stake in the places where astronomers build facilities.”  We hope that the science community learns from TMT’s experience — it was a wake-up call to change the way we do astronomy and how we engage with host communities.

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