‘Ike Wai Scholar Alexa Runyan wins PACON Award

At the recent Marine Option Program (MOP) Student Symposium on April 6, held on Maui, University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Hilo Data Analysis Intern and ‘Ike Wai Scholar, Alexa Runyan was one of two students who brought home major awards.

Alexa Runyan at the Marine Option Program Student Symposium

Winning the Pacific Congress on Marine Science and Technology (PACON) International, Hawai‘i Chapter, MOP Symposium Award for the project with the best use of technology with a Pacific focus, Runyan was recognized for her use of structure-from-motion software to create three-dimensional models of coral reefs at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

“Alexa has an outstanding work ethic. Her intelligence and enthusiasm have helped us progress our data analysis and understanding of these valuable marine systems”, said Dr. John Burns, who Runyan assists in rendering and analyzing 3D coral models from sites around the French Frigate Shoals, the largest atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Burns, who also presented at the symposium, spoke on the substantial role Runyan has played in supporting the ‘Ike Wai project through the application of data science tools.

“Specifically, she is helping us map and quantify coral reef habitats throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago. Her work is helping to track change in coral community structure and habitat complexity associated with environmental disturbances, and also assisting with developing machine learning algorithms to automate identification of benthic organisms,” said Burns.

Runyan was one of seven UH Hilo MOP students who presented at the annual symposium, which provides a professional and scientific venue for these students to hone their presentation skills, meet other students and learn about research projects on other campuses.

UH Hilo MOP team at the marine science competition, left to right, Matthew Connelly, Clara Smith, Michaela Setzer, Aliona Megedyuk, Mia Lamirand, Bryant Grady, Alexandra Runyan, Jon Ehrenberg, and Lisa Parr, April 6, 2019. Photo by Jeff Kuwabara/UH Mānoa MOP

“It was a lot of fun to present . . . I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity through ‘Ike Wai, the MEGA (Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis) Lab, and [UH Hilo],” said Runyan. “Winning this award tells me that the research I’m learning about, assisting with and hopefully pursuing is truly something that can make a difference in how we assess coral health and determine the consequences of bleaching events on reef ecosystems.”

Runyan expressed that this new method of long-term monitoring and health assessment is the best possible way to make more people aware of the effect climate change has on what she considers to be beautiful and extremely important environments.

She is also assisting in the creation of a virtual reality coral museum and hopes to continue her work with Dr. Burns in the MEGA Lab on his new study “A Second Pair of Eyes: Digital Image Analysis of Hawaiian Coral Reefs” over the summer. Runyan is looking forward to continuing her work and beginning her senior thesis project in another year, where she hopes to find a question about corals that has been under-researched or not yet considered.

“Receiving the PACON award . . . in my second year of my undergrad inspires me to work harder and say yes to as many opportunities I possibly can, so I can work with top scientists around the world to conduct coral reef studies, hopefully for deep sea environments one day, and most importantly open people’s eyes to the importance of these environments I have grown up loving.”