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Big Island Tea

University of Hawaii - Hilo

 

 

 

Cam Muir

Associate Professor, Biology, University of Hawaii, Hilo

Founder, Big Island Tea

 

BSc. Biology, SFU

PhD Biology, SFU 1998

Biography

Being a student, particularly a graduate student at SFU, allowed this country boy who didn’t finish high school, to make two field trips to the jungles of Borneo and chase after wild orangutans.  I traveled all over Canada and the US, met and got advice from some of the most creative thinkers of the day.  These experiences have only led to more travel and amazing international experiences.  I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been and I am grateful SFU.  Mahalo (“Thank You” in Hawaiian).

I completed a BSc, and PhD (1998): Dissertation: The Descendants of our Ancestors: Investigating Population Structure of the Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) Using DNA Sequence and Paleomigration Modeling. in the Biology Department in what was then called the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.

In 1999, I moved to Hawai`i (University of Hawai`i at Hilo) where I had the opportunity to play a leading role in transforming lab facilities to enable molecular work.  I have been a PI, Co-PI, or Senior Personnel on over $19 million in grants and studied a wide variety of endangered Hawaiian organisms including: Picture-winged Drosophila; Nene geese; `Opae`ula; and O`opu.   My interests have been focused on population structure, ecological genetics, and transcriptomics of adaptation.

In 2010, I took a four year leave from the Biology faculty to work as Associate Dean and then as the Director of the new office of Sustainability  spearheading a state-wide (14 campus) Sustainability Council and changing the UH Board of Regents Policy to include sustainability obligations.  In 2014, I returned to the faculty from administration.

Traveling with students to places like American Samoa, and Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the "Forbidden Island" of Kaho`olawe and hosting a Study Abroad group from Vancouver have been exciting parts of my work in Hawai`i.  I have also traveled to New Caledonia and Washington DC to work with other universities to establish new programs and find ways to strengthen existing programs.  

In 2001 my wife joined me in Hawai`i and we started growing tea (www.BigIslandTea.com).  We purchased a salad farm, removed most of the commercial greenhouses and planted a forest in which we grow tea as an understory crop using agro-ecological farming methods.  In 2010 we debuted our tea at Harrods, London, UK, where it currently sells for ~$5,000/lb. It has been called one of the best black teas in the world.

Work with agro-ecology on our farm, and with sustainability at the university has drawn my interest toward sustainable agricultural systems including the effects of environmental influences on expression of genes important to the taste and the health benefits of tea. I am also working with colleagues to integrate Western, and Hawaiian Scientific epistemologies to investigate systems approaches to enabling remote community development and small scale food, water, and energy security.  We are exploring ways to use ancient Hawaiian farming techniques to use open up farming is areas considered too dry to grow food.  We plan to continue working with colleagues in Engineering at Cornell University to integrate low-tech, high efficiency methods to store excess solar PV generated electricity.

Questions

Why did you choose to go to SFU?

SFU gave me a chance to work on an exciting project; population genetics of wild orangutans, mentored by top notch people like Andy Beckenbach, and Birute Galdikas, with global connections like Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking, Kelley Thomas, and Axel Meyer.

Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?

As an undergraduate student, I spent all of my time outside class either studying or working as a bartender, grain worker, and lab helper (volunteer then paid).  During graduate school when I was not in the lab, I was very often in the forest paths around Burnaby Mountain.  In particular, there were a collection of totem poles in the forest just a few hundred meters by path from the IMBB building.  It was called Naheeno Park.  I understand some of the poles have been removed now (as has some of the forest) and can be found outside the Office for Aboriginal Peoples.  I spent a lot of time sitting at the foot of the poles with my friend discussing phylogenetics (tree building) among the trees.

What is your favourite memory from your time at SFU?

My favorite times at SFU included walking through the forest with my friends imagining/discussing/arguing about our research.  Traveling to Borneo as a part of my graduate work was life changing.  I’ll never forget working with a Vet (Edwin Bosi) and a guide (“Mass”) to capture a orangutan trapped in the middle of a oil palm plantation.  We were about to step into a jungle patch and Edwin advised that I should “Watch for cobras” (*!!!*)... then he told me “... actually, if {I] see one, it’s too late”

Who was your favourite SFU professor and why?

There were many terrific professors and TA’s at SFU including Rolf Mathews, Keith Slessor, and Nico Verbeek.  Louis Druehl was great and offered me my first chance to work and learn in a research lab.  John “Boomer” Boom was a huge influence on my early efforts to learn lab techniques.  Marco Marra (another of the featured Alums) was my favorite TA when I was an undergraduate.  Marco was a senior graduate student when I started grad school and helped me in uncountable ways.  Birute Galdikas was an inspirational co-advisor for my research.  Andy Beckenback was my main PhD advisor and enabled me to creatively stretch my wings.   I am indebted for so much of my learning and academic exploration to many graduate student colleagues including (certainly NOT limited to) Alan Arndt, Charlene Mayes, Gary Saunders, Ian Tan, Hong Liu, Russ Watkins, and Lauren Launen.  My favorite professor was Fulton Fisher.  Fulton showed me the spirit and passion of biology and the role of innovative thinkers in research and education.

How has your SFU degree impacted your career?

The combination of laboratory training, and field experience in Borneo I received during my graduate studies at SFU is the reason I received 5 simultaneous Post-Doc offers to work in places like LA, New York, Chicago, Cambridge, and Hawai`i (the one I chose).  The confidence I gained in the SFU research community has helped me power through many challenges in my career.

What is your favourite SFU snow story?

For a little while during graduate school, I lived on Bowen Island and rode a motorcycle to SFU.  One late afternoon, during the winter, I walked out to the parking lot and found my motorcycle buried in the snow.  It wasn’t a very smart choice, but I dug my bike out of the snow and then, in the dark, rode (white knuckled) through snow, then slush, then cold rain down the mountain.  Truly one of the scariest rides I’ve taken but managed to “keep the rubber side down"!

If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?

Remember that struggling with a problem is a very important part of learning.  Don’t be afraid to keep working on a question you can’t solve right away.  When you have your own lab, you will have the experience and confidence to know you can solve the problem that menaces you.  Be brave and creative when you answer questions in class.  Be conservative on your exam.  Walk in the forest, talk with the janitors, learn from the people maintaining the labs and supporting the classes.  Learn to explain and discuss your work with people in very different fields.  Ask yourself how your work will contribute to making your community a better place to live for all human and non-humans who live there.  Ask yourself if the taxpayers who pay your bills would be pleased with the work you do.

What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?

Much has changed in the structure of the forest that surrounds SFU.  I believe it would be a very big mistake to loose any more of that forest.  Pedagogically, I think that the mandatory tutorials for all classes is one of the best learning approaches for BOTH undergraduates and graduate students I have encountered.