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Papaikou Resident Finalist in Innovation Competition

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A graduate student from Papaikou is looking to take the moisture out of one aspect of marine biology.

John Burns has been named a finalist in an international competition that rewards innovation.

Burns, who attends the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wants to develop waterproof computer tablets to further the study and conservation of coral reef ecosystems in Hawaii.

That idea made him one of the three people in the US vying for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

The 22 finalists worldwide were chosen from more than 1,800 applicants from 129 countries for the awards given to innovators under 30 years of age.

Burns wants to provide waterproof tablets to help communities monitor and preserve reefs and the species they support.

John Burns, in the center wearing a white T-shirt, takes part in one of his community outreach programs. UH photo.

John Burns, in the center wearing a white T-shirt, takes part in one of his community outreach programs. UH photo.

The effort is rooted in years of outreach work, including the development of websites monitoring coral reefs off Kapoho.

Burns said such equipment could fulfill different roles in different communities.

Burns said while he might be involved in the study of coral diseases, others might be interested in not just coral health also in fish populations, organisms such as opihi or in limu, edible Hawaiian seaweed.

He said some communities, particularly those comprised of Native Hawaiians, might want to track seasonal cycles that have to do with moon phases and fish abundance.

“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,” he said in a statement from UH-Manoa.

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 graphic displays.

Burns notes that many potential users of the tablets rely on the sea for food and to support local jobs.

John Burns. Courtesy photo.

John Burns. Courtesy photo.

“Their livelihoods and a lot of their cultural practices are intertwined with these marine resources,” he said.  “If the resources disappear, it can also impact the culture.”

Five winners of the Rolex awards will be announced in June. Each will receive an award of more than $56,000 to support their projects.

Burns is a PhD candidate at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, part of UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at California Polytechnic State University and a masters in tropical conservation biology and environmental science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.


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