Marine science major Alexa Runyan receives prestigious NSF graduate research fellowship

Alexa Runyan, awarded the five-year fellowship that includes three years of financial support with an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution, has been accepted to the ocean engineering graduate program at University of Rhode Island.

By Susan Enright

Alexa Runyan diving.
Alexa Runyan collects reef data. Courtesy photo.
Alexa Runyan
Alexandra Runyan

A student majoring in marine science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo has received a highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Alexa Runyan, a senior earning a bachelor of science in marine science with a minor in physics and a certificate in data science, has been accepted to the ocean engineering graduate program at the University of Rhode Island.

The NSF fellowship recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.

“I am beyond grateful for my advisors for all of their support and trust throughout my time at UH Hilo,” says Runyan. “They truly gave me the tools and the confidence to grab every opportunity to grow as a scientist and develop my research interests. The experiences and lessons I have from UH Hilo will travel with me indefinitely as I pursue my graduate studies and a career in ocean engineering.”

John HR Burns
John HR Burns

As an undergraduate at UH Hilo, Runyan, originally from Marin County in California, has conducted marine science and data science research with John Burns, an assistant professor of marine science who specializes in coral biology, coral reef ecology, 3D modeling, and data visualization. Burns founded the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab at UH Hilo.

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

Kathy Cooksey, associate professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department, says Runyan is a very proactive student who clearly took advantage of what UH Hilo has to offer across disciplines to build her skillset and grow as a scientist.

Applied learning

As part of being a data analysis intern with Burns, Runyan is also an ‘Ike Wai Scholar. In 2020, she was a member of a team of students and faculty in the ʻIke Wai Research Experience in Data Science Program at UH Hilo; their work on coral health and disease was published in Frontiers Marine Science on May 6. The publication, “A Comparison of the Diagnostic Accuracy of in-situ and Digital Image-Based Assessments of Coral Health and Disease,” is the result of research done in summer 2019. The study addresses a pressing issue of the capability of digital images to be used for detecting disease in marine environments and provides the pros and cons of using new technologies versus conventional techniques.

Burns says Runyan played a substantial role in supporting the ‘Ike Wai project through the application of data science tools. “Specifically, she [helped] us map and quantify coral reef habitats throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago,” he explains. “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.”

In the summer of 2019, Runyan joined two marine scientist faculty for a trip to Majuro and Arno Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands to lead an eight-week “bootcamp” for budding Marshallese marine scientists enrolled at UH Hilo. Runyan, who served as teaching assistant for the place-based learning program, worked with Steve Colbert, chair and associate professor of the marine science department, and Karla McDermid, professor of marine science. Runyan is a divemaster and instructed the students in benthic surveying (deepest depths) and photographing of the atoll’s coral reef system. She also assisted with activities in the lab.

Students examine algae samples in trays.
While on an educational expedition in the Marshall Islands in 2019, students from UH Hilo and the University of the Marshall Islands analyze algae samples collected from Majuro lagoon with the help of UH Hilo undergraduate and teaching assistant Alexa Runyan (center). Photo courtesy of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society.

Earlier, in April 2019, Runyan was one of two students who brought home major awards from the Marine Option Program (MOP) Student Symposium held on Maui. Runyan won the Pacific Congress on Marine Science and Technology (PACON) International, Hawai‘i Chapter, award for the project with the best use of technology with a Pacific focus. Specifically, she was recognized for her use of structure-from-motion software to create three-dimensional models of coral reefs at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

“Alexa is a wonderful representation of an interdisciplinary scientist,” says Burns. “She merges innovative data science skills into marine science and has already been advancing the field as an undergraduate, which is exceptional.”


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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