Kevan Kamibayashi’s First Encounter with Kïlauea Changed His Life
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The first time I saw flowing lava, that was it . . . I was hooked!” That is how Kevan Kamibayashi describes his first encounter with an active volcano back in 1992, at the age of 11.
Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Kevan had come to the Big Island for a two-week summer program run by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Nä Pua No‘eau, Center for Gifted and Talented Native Hawaiian Children. Offered a choice of classes, he signed up for “Rocks and Rolls,” imagining a chance to play around with music. It turned out instead to be a class in geology . . . and it marked a turning point in his life.
Today, Kevan Kamibayashi works as the chief field engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, where he can see flowing lava pretty much every day. During that first program, taught as a hands-on field laboratory at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park by Dr. Jim Kauahikaua, HVO research geophysicist and scientist-in-charge from 2004 to 2015, and Dr. Jim Anderson, UH Hilo geology department faculty member, Kevan not only had a chance to see active lava flows, but also learned how to map them by hand, pre-GPS (global positioning system), using a compass and pacing out measurements. He found the experience way more fun than rock ’n’ roll.
“Taking a lava sample was absurdly cool . . . spooky, but really cool,” he said.
Previously a just passing student, he entered the seventh grade at Kaua‘i High School that fall with a fresh passion for the natural sciences and a new motivation for learning.
“Nä Pua No‘eau taught me that I knew how to learn and that I could learn . . . just in a different way.”
Kevan returned to the Big Island for Nä Pua No‘eau every summer through high school. During those years, he spent his free time playing with machines, starting with radio control toys and then tinkering with electronics. He loved taking machines apart and then trying to put them back together again — his mom’s vacuum cleaner being one of his memorable failures. While working on another experiment, he actually blew up his stereo while tinkering with a component to amplify the sound by directing more current through the volume knob.
For a while, his family dubbed him the “Broke Mechanic,” likely to break anything he touched. By his late teens, however, he had intuitively developed the ability to not only put machines back together, but to actually improve them.
The child of a typical “mixed plate” local family, Kevan grew up in ‘Öma‘o on Kaua‘i’s west side. His great-great-grandfather immigrated to Hawai‘i from Kagoshima and married an Issei woman from Fukuoka. Kevan’s Japanese grandfather married a Puerto Rican woman and made his living running a snack wagon. Kevan’s mother comes from a large Hawaiian family of ranchers and kalo (taro) farmers. But no one in Kevan’s family had a background in science or engineering.
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Margaret Shiba is the director of institutional advancement for the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. She and her Hawai‘i island-born husband Kenji lived in New York for over three decades before pulling up stakes and relocating to the Big Island, where they now reside in Ähualoa on the Hämäkua coast. They are active members of the Paauilo Kongöji Mission.