In applying for a Udall Scholarship, biology major Roxanne Main ’25 wrote about “the Hawaiian value pono, believing in righteousness and goodness.” She strives to “exemplify pono by applying my ancestral values to present Indigenous issues.”
This year, she is one of 55 college sophomores and juniors—and the first Amherst College student ever—chosen to receive financial support from the Udall Foundation for working to address environmental challenges and issues affecting Native nations. The Udall Foundation was established by Congress in 1992 to honor longtime U.S. Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.).
Main is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) from the Waimānalo reservation on Oahu. “In strong Native Hawaiian communities, there’s still a resistance toward Americanization,” she says, because of events such as Oahu’s Red Hill water crisis, an environmental disaster caused by a fuel leak from an underground storage facility. Pursuing a college degree or engaging in scientific research can be discouraged in favor of learning traditional ways to live off the land. Main grew up “trying to find a new way to help my community by finding a bridge between Western education and Indigenous values.”
In high school she did research on how to prevent a fungal disease from killing ‘Ōhi‘a lehua, an endemic plant used in Hawaiian medical practices. Starting in the summer before college, she worked with the University of Hawai‘i, studying the relationship between a species of mushroom and a type of endemic pine tree and also helping to introduce other Indigenous people to STEM research opportunities.
At Amherst, she has been active in the Native and Indigenous Students Association, coordinating and publicizing events such as a lei-making workshop and helping to recruit new students to the College in conjunction with the Early Opportunity on Native Studies program.
Which Amherst courses have meant the most to her? Main cites American Studies 370: “Indigenous Feminisms,” as well as science classes on “Adaptation & Organism” and “Evolutionary Biology,” where “we went over so many examples from Hawaii,” she says.
With support from a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in 2022, she began working with Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Anna Martini to measure bacterial pollution in a local stream and then build a device that can kill the bacteria using ultraviolet light.
“My Waimānalo reservation does not have access to clean water and is unable to grow traditional food,” Main wrote in her Udall application, so “I plan to continue my research into this area and design a battery-powered UV lamp to place in my reservation.”
This semester, Main is studying environmental biology and Indigenous law at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Long term, she hopes to work in environmental conservation.
“The Hawaiian Kingdom’s national motto is ‘Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina i ka pono,’” she points out, then provides a translation: “The life of the land is gained through righteousness.”
Photograph by Everlyn Main