UH Hilo marine scientist John Burns receives tenure

Associate Professor John Burns is a research scientist studying coral health with special focus on the ways coral mortality affects the ecology and biology of coral reef ecosystems.

John Burns pictured at sea
John Burns (Courtesy photo)

This story is part of a series on newly tenured faculty.

John Burns pictured
John Burns

John Burns, an associate professor of marine science at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, has received tenure. He is a research scientist primarily studying coral health and disease; specifically, he is investigating the physiological impacts of disease on affected corals and how coral mortality affects the ecology and biology of coral reef ecosystems. He arrived at UH Hilo in 2018 and quickly merged the disciplines of marine science and data science to develop the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Laboratory or MEGA Lab based at UH Hilo, where he conducts his research, collaboratively works with scientists from around the world, and trains students in cutting edge technologies.

About receiving tenure, he says, “Tenure provides recognition that your work has value to that system and academia as a whole. I take my pedagogy seriously and it is great to see this payoff in student evaluations for my courses, and ultimately in recognition of my teaching by obtaining tenure.”

Burn’s research is not confined to Hawai‘i; he investigates both local and global drivers of coral disease in order to promote healthy coral ecosystems in the face of global stressors such as climate change. His expertise in coral reef research has led to his inclusion in the award-winning documentaries Chasing Coral, Island Earth, and Reefs at Risk (see excerpt below). He has presented his research at scientific conferences around the globe and has authored multiple publications in international peer-reviewed journals.

Above, John Burns is featured in Reefs at Risk, an award-winning documentary about the harmful effects some sunscreen chemicals have on coral reefs and marine life.

3D mapping

Among his most innovative work, Burns has developed techniques to create three-dimensional maps of coral reefs to accurately measure how natural and human-induced disturbances impact the function of reef ecosystems.

Burns says scientists started studying and monitoring coral reefs many decades ago when a lot of the research revolved around simple metrics with scientists taking 2D images with measurements to calculate a given year’s coral cover and diversity.

“But that information only provides a limited analysis and cannot detect changes in the structural complexity of the reef habitat,” he says.

To get the bigger picture, Burns says one needs to look at the 3D structure of the reef.

“2D measurement allows you to characterize coral reefs, but what it doesn’t tell you is how the ecosystem is shifting in terms of its functionality based on changes occurring to the physical structure of the habitat,” he says. “That’s because corals are ecosystem engineers, like trees. The 3D architecture provided by the living corals creates dynamic habitat that supports incredibly high levels of abundance and diversity of associated reef organisms. By their very existence they create a metropolis for organisms.”

Pocillopora meandrina colony
Click on image above to explore 3D interactive model of Pocillopora meandrina colony from Wai‘opae, Hawai‘i Island (link). Model created by John Burns.

The collecting of the data—the reef imagery—can be grueling and dangerous, with research teams diving in open, rough waters. See a recently released video about the field work that goes into gathering the photos used in creating the 3D imaging: Mapping the Reef.

This remarkable 3D mapping of coral reefs is a hallmark of Burns’s work, and he is known for including his students in this research both in the open ocean and in the MEGA Lab.

In 2020, a team of undergraduates from UH Hilo’s Department of Computer Science and UH Mānoa’s College of Engineering was awarded the Best Visualization Showcase Award at the Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing Conference (PEARC20). The honor was awarded for an immersive virtual reality app made from thousands of images of coral reef habitats collected by Burns and his research team through underwater imaging and reconstruction techniques.

Images such as those used for the app are processed at the MEGA Lab using structure-from-motion photogrammetry technology to create high-resolution 3D reconstructions of each reef study plot that are then integrated to form the foundation of the virtual experience.

Virtual 3D platforms are an effective way to not only educate the public about coral reefs, but also provide data to other researchers studying reefs in the Hawaiian Archipelago and in other locations in the Pacific. The reconstructions allow investigators to examine the ways in which coral reefs change over time and how they respond to stressors associated with climate change, the environment, and other anthropogenic factors.

“In today’s environmental situation we are facing an increase in the intensity and frequency of disturbance whether it is from storms and stronger weather events like El Nino, pollution, or large-scale factors such as climate change,” says Burns. “We are finding that these disturbance events have disproportionate impacts on the health and mortality of certain species, and we need to understand this better in order to predict how changing environmental conditions will alter coral reefs in the future.”

Live cam

Burns also heads a project of setting up and maintaining a high-resolution real-time video monitoring camera in waters off Kona, Hawai’i Island. A joint effort between UH Hilo’s MEGA Lab, the ecological monitoring equipment company View Into The Blue, and the philanthropic engineering company Aqualink, the real-time camera is running 24/7 unless down for maintenance.

The live cam not only provides an educational experience for the public, but also gives researchers a source of new information about aquatic population numbers and the interactions of species within their environment.

The livestream also has a chat function where viewers often leave comments with timestamps where specific species or behaviors are noticed. “This feature of the stream could allow the information, species, or behaviors noticed by these citizens to be isolated, assessed, and considered as possible subjects for future machine learning based studies,” says Burns.

“I hope the cam project will continue to foster the development of next-generation science tools, interdisciplinary studies, and collaborative relationships in order to promote resilient coral ecosystems in the face of modern threats such as climate change,” he says.

Opportunities for students

Burns currently teaches oceanography, core courses at the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, and data visualization. He was a recipient of the University of Hawai‘i Frances Davis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2020.

Burns says a motivation for creating the underwater 3D mapping and live-stream camera endeavors is to provide learning opportunities for students. “The science output [of the livestream camera] will hopefully create more opportunities for students to get involved with data science applications that leverage the video footage to improve our understanding of reef processes.”

Data science class poses for photo.
John Burns (top left) stands with students and faculty of the ʻIke Wai Research Experience in Data Science Program at UH Hilo who had their work on coral health and disease published in Frontiers Marine Science in 2020. (Courtesy photo)

Burns says that university faculty are “here to provide the best educational opportunities for our students and that requires that we be outstanding teachers and researchers.” Going forward, he hopes to continue to involve students in his research and provide them training with cutting-edge technology and data science tools such as underwater modeling.

“My ultimate goal is to watch my students eventually surpass my efforts and continue to innovate education and research,” he says. “We must remember we are here to project the next generation ahead, as this is how progress will enable our educational system to continue improving.”

“I believe we all have a responsibility to be our best at our workplace,” he adds. “As scientists, it is our responsibility to advance our fields of study and integrate our knowledge back into the classrooms.”

He says his recent tenure is a great benchmark to show that progress and efforts have value, “I look at it as motivation to continue following this path and striving for excellence.”

“I look forward to continuing integrating students into my research projects and integrating what we discover back into the classroom.”

Edited by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor.