Truthfully it’s hard to imagine Elizabeth Stacy ever being exhausted. Her enthusiasm for her research is among the reasons Stacy received a prestigious, fiveyear National Science Foundation CAREER grant. She’s also a popular lecturer and works with K-12 students on the Big Island to spread the gospel of science. Stacy uses a demonstration garden to show students how two plants of the same species can turn out differently depending on the conditions.
In the field her tools are rudimentary and catch-as-catch-can. But in the lab Stacy is riding at the forefront of evolutionary genetics. “We search for divergences in the so-called ‘microsatellite DNA’ of related plants.” Her team has identified striking differences, for example, in microsatellite DNA between the Wailuku River ‘ohi‘a and other ‘ohi‘a from Hawai’i Island— meaning that she could be tantalizingly close to discovering a new ‘ohi‘a species. To be certain that it’s new will require more study. It’s possible that it might not be a new species, but rather an old one that fared poorly in the modern world. “Few places in Hawai‘i remain totally undisturbed,” she says. “Things that are considered rare today maybe were common at one time but are now dealing with lost habitat or competition by invasive weeds.”
The rain has slackened. The sun is out, and the colors of the forest come alive. We stop at a healthy ‘ohi‘a, a tree that Stacy and her team have used for several pollinations. It’s still blossoming even though the flowering season for most ‘ohi‘a is over. “I never really know exactly when they’ll flower and when they won’t. There’s just so much variation that it’s impossible to make blanket statements,” she says. “They always surprise me, and that’s one of the reasons I find them so fascinating.”