People who have had their portrait drawn by Mahinaokalani Robbins at Busch Gardens would be surprised to learn that the artistic piece is the work of a budding scientist.
Robbins is in her last year at Thomas Nelson Community College, where she developed a penchant for geology upon enrolling in 2017. Science wasn’t always her thing, though. Throughout her teens the 23-year-old was set on becoming a professional artist.
“My original major was art. I studied studio art at (Virginia Commonwealth University) right out of high school. I wanted to be a freelance artist. But, when I left VCU due to financial circumstances, I couldn’t pursue that anymore,” said the 2013 Menchville High School graduate.
Leaving VCU after her 2013-2014 freshman year, she worked in “art jobs” for a short time. The work experience made Robbins rethink her plan and chart a new course. "(Being an artist) just didn’t feel like something I wanted to do anymore,” she said, recalling how she chose Thomas Nelson to make a change.
A Seattle, Wash. native, she moved to Newport News as a youngster with her parents and four siblings. Robbins became familiar with Thomas Nelson through her mother, who was in her 40s when she earned a two-year degree, transferred to William & Mary and earned a degree in finance. That example solidified community college as an ideal route for Robbins.
“I wanted to pursue science because I was always good at math in high school. So, I took a course with Lynsey LeMay and I was like, ‘Wow this is awesome…I can totally see myself doing this.’”
Her decision to shift gears is paying off. To date, majoring in science and focusing on geology at Thomas Nelson has taken Robbins to El Paso, Texas for a summer internship that involved field work in the desert with nine fellow community college students from across the nation. “When I went to that internship, I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a geologist. But after a few days in the field, I thought to myself, ‘This is so awesome. This has to be my life.’”
The internship was a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates venture that allowed her to participate in UTEP-ROCCS, a partnership between El Paso Community College and University of Texas – El Paso. Over 24 days in June, Robbins was on a research team examining the relationship between igneous and sedimentary rocks.
“All the projects surrounded the idea of determining the geologic history of the igneous rockin the area. We were able to come up with a research topic, have a question, have an experimental design and complete it and present it potentially at a national conference. Almost every day we were outside in the desert hiking for hours. It was really incredible,” she said.
Also thanks to science, Robbins ventured to Indianapolis, Ind. in November to present an abstract on research findings at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting. Earlier in October, she participated in the Virginia Geological Field Conference in Petersburg. In addition, she began preparing to present at the American Geophysical Union virtual poster session.
LeMay, from whom Robbins took several classes including physical geology, historical geology and oceanography, is not surprised by Robbins zeal for this particular science.
“Mahina will excel is whatever path she chooses,” said LeMay. “She has a keen interest in the geosciences and demonstrates her commitment to the field through her involvement in regional, national and international geoscience meetings.
“She is an excellent student and gives her all ... She has an amazingly strong work ethic and combined with her curiosity and (desire) to learn more, will excel.”
Although Robbins still works part time at Busch Gardens as an artist and has another part time job at the Virginia Living Museum, she is all in for science. The summer research experience, which she deems invaluable, amplified her fervor.
“I feel like it prepared me for my eventual master’s thesis … I made lots of lifelong friends and connections with the El Paso Community College faculty as well as the University of Texas at El Paso faculty there. I have the opportunity to return to El Paso in March for their annual undergraduate research colloquium for the geology department,” she said.
The rigors of school and working two jobs leaves her little time for extracurricular activities. However, she is member of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program at the College. Facilitated at Thomas Nelson by Dr. Elena Kuchina the program is funded by the National Science Foundation and it aims to diversify the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics workforce by increasing the number of underrepresented minority students earning higher education degrees. Several two- and four-year schools in Virginia and North Carolina are LSAMP partners.
Robbins is slated to graduate this semester with an associate of applied science degree. She was recently accepted to William & Mary, where she will begin classes in the spring pursuing a degree in geology. The aspiring geologist aims to head back out west to continue her education and ultimately enter her field.
“I want to go get my master’s degree at Oregon State University or University of Washington … What really inspires me is wanting to enjoy going to work. I want to get a degree so I can support myself doing something I enjoy,” she said.