• November 30, 2021
 UTEP Postdoctoral Researcher receives Microsoft’s AI for Earth Grant

UTEP Postdoctoral Researcher receives Microsoft’s AI for Earth Grant

Microsoft has awarded a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Texas at El Paso with a grant to extend the efforts of the College of Science’s Systems Ecology Laboratory in understanding how widespread and ongoing change in Arctic terrestrial ecosystems might threaten not only local natural landscapes and Arctic native communities but also global Earth system processes.

Sergio A. Vargas Zesati, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences, was named a recipient of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Earth grant from the tech giant.

“I’m truly excited and fortunate for this unique opportunity to work with the best scientists and engineers toward testing the application of the latest machine learning and image processing approaches,” Vargas Zesati said.

“Understanding how widespread and ongoing change in Arctic terrestrial ecosystems will trigger a cascade of Earth system processes (i.e. global carbon and energy balance) remains an urgent and transdisciplinary challenge. Climate change impacts are threatening Arctic plant community composition, structure and distribution and the magnitude of change has proven to be difficult to quantify at optimal resolutions using conventional approaches.”

Vargas Zesati added, “We are hoping that Microsoft’s advances in machine and deep learning as well as cloud computing resources can help us address well-recognized research gaps in a manner not previously possible and at the same time contribute knowledge that might help society better prepare for future anticipated ecological changes worldwide.”

The innovative project is a collaborative effort between two UTEP professors: Miguel Velez-Reyes, Ph.D., professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering, and Craig Tweedie, Ph.D., professor and director of UTEP’s environmental science and engineering program, and external collaborator Chandi Witharana, Ph.D., professor from the University of Connecticut.

The grant will allow Vargas Zesati to accelerate research on the Northern Alaska Landscape Mapping project in an effort to utilize AI to fuse decades of environmental and vegetation data with high spatial resolution satellite imagery of the Arctic region of northern Alaska, and to develop a range of maps detailing landscape characteristics.

In turn, these maps can be used as inputs for ecosystem, land surface and global climate models that can lead to a better understanding of the rates and magnitudes of change and help assess how society may need to adapt to mitigate further change occurring at unprecedented rates across Earth.

Arctic ecosystems have been recognized as sentinels of change for other biomes. There is significant evidence of the impact fluctuations in Arctic environments have on the rest of the planet. As such, a wide range of disciplines and sectors of society have sought a higher capacity for detecting change in ecosystems, particularly for the Arctic.

AI for Earth is a $50 million, five-year program that allows researchers to fully utilize Microsoft technology in applications to solve global environmental challenges in the key focus areas of climate, agriculture, water and biodiversity.

To learn more about the AI for Earth program, click here.

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