Lisa A. Privitera

University of Hawaii at Manoa

  • Zoology (PhD) 2002
  • Zoology (MS) 1998

University of Houston at Clear Lake

  • Biology (BS) 1987

I learned how to SCUBA dive at the age of 14, and made my first “open-water” dive in a cold, dark quarry in Ontario, Canada.  I think I saw two fish; however, this experience sparked my interest in marine biology, and my desire to study in warmer waters, so I began my college education in Florida with the intention of pursuing a career in marine biology.  I eventually made my way to Hawaii to pursue my graduate studies in Zoology at UH-Mānoa. Under the supervision of my graduate mentor, Dr. George Losey, Professor of Zoology and Researcher at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) on Coconut Island (Moku O Loʻe), I undertook a doctoral research project to study the reproductive behavior and ecology of a coral reef gobiid fish in Kane‘ohe Bay.  I was pursuing my dream of becoming a marine biologist, snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the warm, tropical waters of Hawaii and other islands in the Indo-Pacific, studying coral reef fishes, and doing lab work at Coconut Island.  

Coconut Island, home of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology                                      Professors (Emeritus) of Zoology, Ernie Reese and George Losey.

During my years as a graduate student, I was very fortunate to learn some valuable skills, which I still use today, even though I would eventually switch careers to become a high school biology teacher. While taking graduate courses and seminars in fish behavior, evolutionary ecology, ichthyology, biometry, and quantitative ethology from Drs. Ernie Reese, Stephen Palumbi, David Greenfield, John Stimson, and my mentor, George Losey, I learned how to critically read, interpret, and critique scientific research published in the primary literature. I learned how to design well-controlled experiments, to collect, record, statistically analyze and interpret my data in order to test hypotheses, and to critically evaluate my results in order to draw well-supported conclusions. I learned how to present my research at scientific conferences, and won a few awards for best student presentation. I learned how to write for scientific journals, published a few research papers, and was invited to review others that had been submitted for publication.

During this time, I was also fortunate to be provided with graduate student housing on Coconut Island, where I paid my rent by driving the shuttle boats that ferried students and researchers to and from the island after hours and on weekends. I was supported first by a graduate Research Assistantship in fisheries biology with Dr. Tom Clarke at HIMB, and later by Teaching Assistantships in Zoology, some small private grants, a graduate division fellowship, and a part-time Lecturer position in Biology & Women’s Studies. I also fell in love and got married to Richard Pyle, who was also working on his doctorate in Zoology, under the guidance of Dr. Jack Randall at the Bishop Museum. While finishing our data analyses and writing our dissertations, we were also raising our two small children, living at Coconut Island, and working part-time (me as a lecturer at UH, and Rich as a research assistant in Ichthyology at Bishop Museum).

One of my students dissecting a squid                                                                                      Koa Tomich observes protists collected from Kawai'nui Marsh

After earning my doctorate in 2002, I began a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Tim Tricas at HIMB, on a project to investigate the neurobiology of hearing in butterflyfishes. I was also applying for faculty positions at various research universities on the mainland, and although I made a few of the short lists and was invited to some interviews, the highly-coveted job offers eluded me. This was quite discouraging, and I was growing tired of sending out applications, so when I received an opportunity to interview for a position to teach high school biology at Le Jardin Academy, a local private school in Kailua, I thought to myself, “I really love teaching, so why not?” Although I enjoyed many aspects of research (such as experimental design, data analysis, scientific writing, and public presentations of my work at symposia), I realized that my biggest passion was actually in teaching. While many of my colleagues would complain about their teaching duties, my heart would leap with joy on the days that I was scheduled to teach a class. When I received the job offer at Le Jardin Academy (LJA), I jumped at it - and have never regretted it!

Devon, Cara, and Jaime observe DNA extracted from a strawberry                             Kelly observes Katie load an agarose gel with DNA

But what I find most gratifying about teaching are the daily interactions with my students - the frequent positive feedback I get from them when they learn something new, solve new problems, or overcome learning difficulties.  When I was doing research, weeks and months would often pass without any positive return on my investment of time and energy.  The tediously slow, grinding pace of data collection, the constant trial-and-error nature of experimental research was not stimulating enough for me. I learned something about myself.  Although I am not a super extraverted, Type-A person, I do love social interactions, and I like to feel like what I am doing is making a significant difference in other people’s lives. As a biology teacher, of course I enjoy sharing my passion for living organisms and how they work, survive, interact, and evolve. But at the same time, I have the potential to change the lives of my students - by nurturing their curiosity about the natural world, stimulating new interests, encouraging them to question the conventional wisdom by inspiring them to think independently, and providing them with the skills they need to critically evaluate claims and evidence.  I’m doing that, and it feels very, very good!


Mitchell (double shaka) and the rest of the LJA Class of 2016 collect data                Danny collects data on sea cucumber abundance in Kaneohe Bay
from Kamo'oali'i Stream                                                                                                                 during a field trip to HIMB 


Content Type: 
Alumni Blog
Last Modified: 
02/16/2016 at 12:04pm