Sea ice monitoring stars in Science for Alaska series

Bob McCoy, Director of the Geophysical Institute, introduced the Science for Alaska lecture series. He explained that the Science for Alaska lectures have been ongoing for 24 years. He also said this year, to be more representative, that four of the six lectures will be given by women scientists. Josh Hartman/Sunstar

Bob McCoy, Director of the Geophysical Institute, introduced the Science for Alaska lecture series. He explained that the Science for Alaska lectures have been ongoing for 24 years. He also said this year, to be more representative, that four of the six lectures will be given by women scientists. Josh Hartman/Sun Star

Josh Hartman/Sun Star

The UAF Geophysical Institute is putting on free lectures in the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel’s Gold Room from Jan. 19 to Feb. 23. The lectures will be given by scientists from UAA and UAF about various scientific topics pertaining to Alaska. Lectures will occur weekly on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. with the first starting on Jan. 19.

The lecture opened with an introduction by Robert McCoy, the director of the Geophysical Institute. The program has been operating for 24 years, McCoy said in his introduction.

“They’re aimed at the general public, so they’re not too hard to understand, even for kids,” Sue Mitchell, public information officer for the Geophysical Institute, said. “Anyone can understand and appreciate and learn something about science.”

The first lecture of the series was given by Martin Cenek, an assistant professor of computer science at UAA. He was suggested to present by Alaska EPSCoR, which he works for.

Cenek’s presentation was titled “What do nano-technology, brain and border patrol have in common?”

His presentation started out with a brief history of computer technology and its usefulness to humans. He then used biological examples like ants and human brain cells as a metaphor for how biological machines show self-regulating and self-organizing behavior.

Cenek explained how devices with antennas can be used to make this self-organizing network. In order for the network to operate it only requires the devices to be able to communicate with their immediate neighbors.

The devices can remain active for seven months on a AAA battery and can communicate with a neighbor up to 40 kilometers away. They can also be fitted with other modules such as WiFi connection or a microphone.

Cenek gave two examples of applications for the device network: using them to monitor ice conditions in the arctic and to monitor international borders or other important areas.

When the devices are laid out onto a sheet of ice, they can keep track of the devices that neighbor them. If the ice sheet moves or calves than the devices will detect that their neighbors have changed or disappeared. This event will cause a propagation of signals that alerts whoever is monitoring the devices.

Martin Cenek, a professor of Computer Science at UAA, was the first of six lecturers of the Science for Alaska lecture series. He presented his research into using small computational devices in a network to monitor climate change and international borders. Josh Hartman/Sunstar

Martin Cenek, a professor of Computer Science at UAA, was the first of six lecturers of the Science for Alaska lecture series. He presented his research into using small computational devices in a network to monitor climate change and international borders. Josh Hartman/Sun Star

Since the devices use antennas to communicate with each other they can also detect when other antennas, like in a cell phone, come near them. By stringing the devices along a border, they would be able to detect if someone with an antenna was traveling along the border or crossing it.

The devices could also be equipped with a microphone that is programmed to send a signal only if the sound of a human or vehicle is crossing the border as opposed to an animal, according to Cenek.

He also brought up the environmental concerns with depositing large amounts of material into the ecosystem. Cenek’s team is working on making a degradable version, or looking toward better ways to retrieve the devices.

Cenek concluded his presentation with an acknowledgement to the Arctic Domain Awareness Center which is part of the Department of Homeland Security for their funding of his research.

The Science for Alaska lecture series is undertaken every year by the Geophysical Institute for public outreach. The program started in 1992. The lectures are recorded and saved on DVDs at the Alaska library system and on the Geophysical Institute’s YouTube channel.

The lectures are held at the Westmark Hotel because the Science for Alaska lectures held there are better attended, according to Diana Cambell, Public Relations Assistant for the Geophysical Institute.

The funding for this program comes from the Geophysical Institute, Alaska Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and the Triplehorn family. The overall cost of the program is about $20,000 according to Sue Mitchell, the Public Information Manager for the Geophysical Institute.

The next lecture in the series will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

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