Students innovate to save coral reefs

Studies diversify to save coral reefs.

By Edgar L. Hawkins
Ka La  staff

A team of University of Hawaii faculty and students completed an exciting summer project combining computers and departments in an ingenious way to determine the presence of diseases on coral reefs. The goals of the University of Hawaii at Hilo experiment included proving computer technology can be combined with human observation to make the process more effective!

Since nothing like this has ever been attempted before, the students also had the difficult task of creating their own proprietary software in order to correlate the data, according to a UH news release.

In only five weeks they not only succeeded in proving computers can make the process more effective, but the software they created allows them to gather, store, extract, analyze, and manipulate, the data in ways to test many differing scenarios., officials said.

Though it required a lot of hard work,  Sofia Ferreira, a UH Hilo marine science major, said she enjoyed interacting with students from other majors.

“We had to work together because the marine science people know how to survey, but when it comes to incorporating these machine learning methods, we need the computer science students to help with it,” she said. “This internship made me want to pursue the data science certificate.”

The summer program was co-led by John Burns, assistant professor of marine science, Travis Mandel, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and Grady Weyenberg, assistant professor of mathematics.

“Combining professors and students from multiple disciplines provided creative insight and a much greater capacity to solve problems, which ultimately enabled us to develop a unique strategy to test if computers have the capacity to assist with detecting diseases and anomalies on coral reefs,”  Burns said

Predictions of future reef health based on ongoing conditions, natural, or man made disasters can also be done. Even testing different remedies can be done using the computers without putting the reefs and fish at any risk whatsoever. This is a significant accomplishment with far reaching implications for coral reef research and health all over the world.

Since the software and methods are proprietary, they are patentable and can become a major source of income by licensing it to businesses, other universities, and governments. The bulk of the profits from licensing the process can be earmarked for providing lower tuition and scholarships.

By merging the computer sciences and marine sciences departments, this became an interdisciplinary team effort, which in itself enhanced and developed communication skills. Each member contributed to the end goal, and benefited from what others bring to the table. This ads value to the learning experience as it fosters respect for others and builds self esteem.

Collateral benefits from the study included students gaining valuable work experience with hands on field work, and developing real world problem solving skills. The value of this is immense since in the post graduate world there can be a great deal of emphasis on working as a team of diverse individuals, with diverse disciplines, and skill levels.

Overall the study had a very holistic approach. Though it required a lot of hard work, marine science major Sofia Ferreira, described it as a joyful learning experience.


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