Categorized | Education

Big Island UH graduate student is finalist for elite international award for innovation


UH Mānoa graduate student John Burns has been selected as a finalist for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

From a pool of more than 1,800 applicants from 129 countries around the world, Burns is one of 22 finalists. The award is targeted to innovators under 30 years of age. The Papaikou resident is one of only three finalists from the United States.

Burns’ big idea is to develop and distribute novel waterproof electronic tablets to support community-based monitoring and conservation of coral reef ecosystems in Hawai‘i. The concept is rooted in years of outreach work with communities on the Big Island.

“While I might be interested in coral diseases, they might be interested in not just coral health, but limu [edible Hawaiian seaweed], fish populations, and maybe intertidal organisms like opihi [limpets]. Or perhaps they would like to track seasonal cycles that have to do with moon phases and fish abundance,” he said about the people in the primarily Native Hawaiian communities he’s working with on the Big Island. “There are so many parameters that they may want to monitor, but they are lacking the infrastructure that allows them to go out and do those surveys.”

Monitoring tools can be expensive and difficult to customize. What’s more, communities often lack the ability to easily aggregate data and store the observations, photos, and data that individuals collect on their own.

To tackle this challenge, Burns proposes to equip four groups on the Big Island (three on the Kona side and one in Hilo) with five novel waterproof electronic tablets each. The tablets run a program that lets users make customized data forms that are automatically synched to a secure online database. The same tools allow for automated data summaries, trend mapping, and graphical display of user-collected data.

Many of Burns’ potential users rely on the sea for food and to support local jobs. “Their livelihoods and a lot of their cultural practices are intertwined with these marine resources,” Burns said. “If the resources disappear, it can also impact the culture.”

Burns is a PhD candidate in Ruth Gates’ laboratory at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, part of the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology (SOEST) at UH Mānoa. He earned his BS in Biology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and an MS in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science at UH Hilo.

The winners of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise will be announced in June 2014. Five Young Laureates of the Rolex Awards will receive a monetary award of more than $56,000 to support their projects.

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