Mailani Neal makes headlines for her online petition in support of the Thirty Meter Telescope project.
by Lynn Beittel
WAIMEA – Mailani Neal is a native Hawaiian who grew up on the Big Island. She is an 18-year old senior at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea. She also loves astronomy.
Neal says in 4th grade – the same year she learned about Polynesian voyaging from her science teacher – her family spent Christmas Day and Night on Mauna Kea. She says during the trip, she felt something within her. “I think I might have felt my calling,” Neal said, “to connect being a Hawaiian individual with the scientist within me. It really created motivation of what I want to do with my life.”
As protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope continue on Mauna Kea, Mailani decided that she wanted to do something to support the observatory. She started an online petition called We Support TMT. After five days, it logged over twenty nine hundred signatures from Hawaii, the Mainland and several other countries. Her effort has been reported in local newspapers and state-wide TV news.
“There have been a lot of media coverage of the side opposing the TMT project,” Neal said, “so I wanted to create this petition as a way to bring attention that there is a group of individuals who supports the project.”
Neal says TMT will bring a lot of emphasis to astronomy and other science fields and educational systems on the Big Island. She also believes the project will benefit the economy and provide many jobs. She is currently working on an independent study astronomy project at her school. “For a couple of years I’ve been working on a few projects detecting planets outside of our solar system,” Neal said. “One of the projects I’m working on now is in collaboration with a European space agency to confirm these planet detections.”
Mailani says her family is supportive of her speaking out for her beliefs, but not all of her friends and family agree with her. “Definitely people that I love and care about allot have a different opinion than me, its not like I’m in a feud with them. We’ve been able to talk about it respectfully, and not let it come in the way of our relationships.”
The conversation about the telescope has become very heated on social media, yet this does not seem to faze Neal. “Yes, I’ve definitely seen a bit of negative comments… but I’ve also received lots of support,” she said. “I think it requires bravery for anyone to voice their opinion. And so I highly advocate that everyone takes the time to learn both sides of the story. Form an opinion for yourself and really remain firm in it.”
Neal emphasized the aspect of respect, from both sides of the story. “I dont want this to be fighting,” Neal said. “I want this to be communicating.”
Mailani has interests outside of astronomy. From a young age she has played tennis. On this day she was hitting with her high school tennis team coach. She is so good that next year she will be playing on a college team.
“I’m going to be going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York,” Neal said, “and I’m planning on majoring in applied physics with a concentration in space science.” She would like to be able to return to follow her career on the island she loves.