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2015 Regents Medals for Excellence in Research

Location, location, location.

Hawaii makes all the difference for the three scientists recognized with this year’s Regents’ Medals for Excellence in Research.

Thomson-lFor Assistant Professor Robert Thomson, in the Department of Biology within the College of Natural Sciences, the opportunity to work in one of the world’s most important hot spots of diversity was a huge draw to UH.

“Because UH Mānoa is the country’s only big research institution that sits inside a global hot spot of evolutionary diversity, we’re in the enviable position of having some of the most interesting biological systems in the world and cutting-edge lab and computational facilities just outside our offices,” Thomson said. “This makes UH Mānoa an incredibly unique and interesting place to work.”

One of Thomson's early research projects at UHM helped elucidate the genome of the Western Painted Turtle
One of Thomson’s early research projects at UHM helped elucidate the genome of the Western Painted Turtle

Thomson’s research work takes advantage of the vast influx of data generated by the advancing genomic revolution in the life sciences. He is focused on improving statistical and bioinformatic methods for elucidating life history from complex genomic datasets, applying these methods to long-standing questions about evolutionary history, and using the answers to inform conservation efforts and protect biodiversity. He has a personal and professional interest in turtles and other herps.

“Aside from our focus on evolution and conservation, my lab is basically interested in working very hard to assemble and make creative use of big, comprehensive, and integrative datasets,” Thomson said. “All of our next major projects have this as a central theme. We’re trying to improve the statistical methods that allow the field to characterize biodiversity and evolutionary history using genomic data and understand how habitat and competition jointly influence the evolution of ecological communities.  And we are looking toward developing more transparent methods for translating biological data into management decisions.”

timmermannAxel Timmerman, a Professor in the Department of Oceanography and at the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC), part of the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, likewise felt that location was key — for him, in part, because of the potential for collaboration.

“I was very excited to work in an institute that was jointly funded by the U.S. and Japan,” said Timmerman, referring to the IPRC’s cooperative agreement between the University of Hawai’i and Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). “The collaboration with our Japanese colleagues has been one of the most rewarding parts of my tenure in Hawaii.”

Calving Glacier
Perito Moreno glacier. Photo courtesy Flickr user yannboix.

Timmerman has made important contributions to the field of climate dynamics, climate modeling and past and future climate change. His Regents Medal recognizes his many research discoveries that have transformed the understanding of the El Niño ocean temperature cycle, abrupt climate change, sea level rise and ice ages.

Timmerman’s current work focus is developing numerical models to simulate the migration of early humans under climate stress.

“My goal is to understand the peopling of our planet in a changing climate environment and the exodus of homo sapiens out of Africa about 100,000 years ago,” Timmerman said. “I am also curious to see whether these types of models can be applied to estimate future migration risks in a warming world.”

meech (1)Astronomer Karen Meech, of the Institute for Astronomy, is pursuing an investigation of the origin of Earth’s water, both astronomically and through geochemical analysis.

This Regents Medal winner has developed a proposal for a Discovery-class mission to explore the outer asteroid belt, which she believes may hold the keys to the water mystery.


The W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea
The W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea

“Hawaii is now one of the best, if not the best site in the world to do astronomy,” said Meech. “It additionally boasts world class geology and geophysics, as well as marine sciences.  I pursue planetary science projects, and the facilities on Maunakea are essential for this.  Additionally, there is no better place to pursue the type of interdisciplinary science I’m engaged in.”

“Pursuing interdisciplinary approaches and collaborations has opened up many new research avenues for funding, and — even better — exciting new ideas,” Meech said.

Her advice to young scientists, in Hawaii and around the world?  “You don’t start by being interdisciplinary; you start by developing a strong skill in a specialty, and then explore interdisciplinary opportunities. Be thorough, engaged, and willing to work hard–and the exciting opportunities will come.”

For a full list of winners of Regents’ Medals for Excellence in Research, please see the UH site here.