Academics, School of Science, Chemistry & Biochemistry
Nanea in scrubs
Nanea Perkins '22

Nanea Perkins ’22 is building the foundation for a career that will help protect the natural beauty of her home state of Hawai’i.

Perkins and her family live on the “Big Island” (the actual name of which is Hawai’i). The chemistry major grew up snorkeling and surfing in the crystal aqua waters of this archipelago in the Pacific. She recalls seeing as a child beautifully colored corals, but now nearly 80 percent of them in the area are bleached or dead.

Global warming is a big culprit – rising water temperatures stress the corals, which then release the algae that live in their tissues. When the algae are released, the corals turn white. Another problem is that all-important substance that helps protect humans from skin cancer: sunscreen.

It’s the chemicals like oxybenzone, octinoxate and benzophenones in sunscreen that not only bleach corals, but induce defects and decrease fertility in fish, sea urchins, dolphins and shellfish. What humans spray on their bodies to protect themselves as they swim, surf and snorkel is harmful to ocean life. 

What’s a nature-loving Hawaiian to do? Perkins has a two-pronged approach: backed by her science studies at Siena, she wants to help develop reef-safe, chemical-free sunscreens. She also wants to create coral nurseries to help build back the reefs that have been so heavily damaged.

“I don’t have a background in marine biology – yet – but I definitely have the passion for this. I will do whatever I can to learn.” 

What other options do we have to protect against skin cancer but also protect nature? Perkins said mineral-based sunscreen with zinc, titanium dioxide or coconut oil are safe. These are currently manufactured, but not very widely, and many outdoors lovers don’t yet know about them.

When she enrolled at Siena she had originally planned a career in cosmetic chemistry, and sunscreen development fits in well with that field. As for the coral reef development, she is exploring options for creating coral nurseries that can be hosted in or out of the ocean. These colonies are then positioned in depleted areas to grow further.

Before she returns to Siena this fall, Perkins is working full time at S & G Labs as a specimen technician and COVID tester. Now that inter-island travel has opened up more there is a high demand for testing. Last year, to stay busy and help keep her community healthy during the pandemic, she trained in Kailua-Kona to become a state-certified nurses’ assistant. 

“I feel like a lot of people outside Hawai’i, or places where people are unfamiliar with the ocean don’t know about this issue. We’ve always been told to wear sunscreen, but most of them damage coral reefs. I’m a huge advocate for the reefs and I want to do everything I can to help protect them.”

Nanea Perkins '22