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Scientists, researchers collaborate during UH-Hilo workshop

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, Moges Wagena, Katalina Salas and Jonathon Humphries build a weather station Aug. 8 at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Liam Sweeney checks a 3-D printer used to make components of the weather stations Aug. 8 at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Scientists from around the country were working to lead their fields into the future at the University of Hawaii at Hilo earlier this month.

UH-Hilo was host to the Intelligent Systems and Geosciences 2018 workshop, which offered 60 scientists and researchers a chance to collaborate and discover.

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The group is comprised of National Science Foundation-funded scientists “who are basically planning for next-generation cybertechnology and sensor technologies to help manage environment, track climate change,” said Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at UH-Hilo. “And they think Hawaii is the perfect living laboratory to do this with eight of the 11 climate zones.

“So they’re seeing all this opportunity to engage with UH-Hilo scientists and have our students take part in this monitoring thing down the road, because they’ll have the connections to really facilitate state of the art technology being placed on the Big Island,” he said.

Virginia Tech’s Daniel Fuka said the aim of the weeklong gathering was to “identify the outer edges of what’s known” in those areas “and to find out where funding needs to go to address the next questions.”

More simply, he said they were “trying to find out what they don’t know.”

“When a group of scientists like this sits there and goes ‘oh crap, I really don’t know’ … then that’s the outer boundary and that’s the question for tomorrow,” Fuka said.

The NSF’s research coordination network is about “bringing researchers with very, very different backgrounds together to find what the new science is that’s in between those researchers,” he said.

Shawon Rahman, an associate professor in UH-Hilo’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering said as a university, these are “very high profile” investigators working at major research universities.

“We’re kind of an isolated island,” he said. “We don’t get many collaborators.”

But many grant funding agencies, like the NSF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture like collaborations, and grants are “so important, because unless we have a grant, we cannot do research. Because if there’s no money, there’s no research.”

And that’s their interest, he said. “We can work with them and that will bring more grant money” which in turns brings more research to the community for faculty, labs and students, “and that will bring more jobs to our island.”

“The thing we’re excited about in the College of Ag is the application of these technologies to better manage agrarian systems in real time,” Mathews said.

“Farmers can use things like wind machines to adjust humidity and we can change fertilization in real time by sensors in the soil, moisture senors that are all connected to say when we need to irrigate so we can minimize crop stress, so it all can be remotely controlled. Farmers can be on vacation and with a cellphone say, ‘OK, I got to irrigate, I got to fertilize’ or what have you.”

Peter Marchetto, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota, is a research “enabler” and tool maker, who builds sensing systems for scientists who haven’t been trained to build such equipment for themselves.

“Part of the reason to come here, though, was to actually meet up with the people who use the data that comes out of the sort of sensing systems that I build and make certain they understand the trials and tribulations of building stuff for them, and the other way around, so that I can understand what they need from me,” he said.

Suzanne Pierce, with the Texas Advanced Computer Center, is the principal investigator for the IS-GEO research coordination network, whose NSF grant largely funded the workshop.

“The Research Coordination Networks are really designed to encourage and nurture new communities of researchers so that they can explore ideas together that may lead to a new discovery in the future,” she said.

TACC is part of the NSF EarthCube program, which Pierce said is about bringing computing and earth researchers together.

Pierce said being on the Big Island was a unique experience, not only because of the ecosystem conditions available on the island, but also the chance to work with University of Hawaii’s ‘Ike Wai project, a cross-disciplinary project that aims to increase understanding of island hydrology.

Being on the island as Hurricane Hector approached and with an active volcano is also a chance to study “some really important earth processes” that are hard to study and understand, she said.

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While they’re aware of the cost and the impacts those processes have on the population, Pierce said “it’s hard to capture how important it is to be here in these kinds of locations and how lucky we are to be here.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com