Feature: Big news about microrobots

Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Aaron Ohta

When the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa fielded its first team ever to compete in the annual National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Microrobotics Challenge—held in May 2011 in Shanghai, China—the Honolulu contingent made quite an impression among competitors from the mainland U.S., France, Italy and Canada.

Electrical engineering graduate students Wenqi Hu and Kelly Ishii finished second among seven teams in the challenge of building mobile robots smaller than 1 millimeter in size. Plus, they were members of the only team besides the winning one, University of Waterloo, that was able to assemble more than a single triangle in the micro-assembly challenge. “We were pleasantly surprised to do so well, because we didn’t have much time to work on this project,” said team advisor and Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Aaron Ohta.

The stellar showing under Ohta’s tutelage was not surprising. The 1999 Kalani High graduate displayed youthful promise when, while enrolled at UH Mānoa in the early 2000s, Ohta was recognized by the national honor society Eta Kappa Nu as the top electrical engineering undergraduate in the U.S. The first UH engineering student to receive the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Ohta went on to earn his master’s from UCLA in 2004 and PhD from UC Berkeley in 2008, before returning to his alma mater to teach in 2009.

It was easy for Ohta to impart his enthusiasm for the world of microrobotics to Hu, Ishii and engineering student Michelle Zhang, who assisted in earlier stages of the project with Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor David Garmire. They were all fascinated by microrobots that are less than 0.6 millimeters in their largest dimension, which is no larger than the width of six strands of hair. UH Mānoa’s microrobot consisted of a very tiny air bubble inside a microchamber, whose surface was heated by a computer projector. The generated force propelled the microrobot, which in turn could move objects smaller than a millimeter in size.

At the Microrobotics Challenge in Shanghai, the tiny robots competed in miniature arenas under a microscope. The competition consisted of two events: a mobility challenge, in which the robots were timed as they moved around a figure-8 track; and a micro-assembly challenge, in which the robots assembled tiny triangles in a designated area. In a show of school spirit, the UH Mānoa team also assembled tiny glass beads into a “U” and a “H.” Go Warriors!

Ohta said the next steps for the campus, after securing a provisional patent, is to publish academic papers, apply for more research funding and, of course, to get ready for next year’s competition in St. Paul, Minnesota. He shared that future applications could include assembling small electrical components in circuit boards, positioning cells in in vitro laboratory dishes to study how cells interact, and building artificial organs. Now wouldn’t that be big news in microrobots! For more information, contact Ohta at (808) 956-8196 or aohta@hawaii.edu.

Top photo: UH Mānoa’s microrobot assembled tiny glass beads into a “U” and a “H.”

Electrical engineering graduate students Kelly Ishii, left, and Wenqi Hu placed second in the 2011 Microrobotics Challenge held in Shanghai, China.

Feature: A Korean-American’s quest

Christopher Bae during a visit to Hokkaido, Japan, where he was invited to give a presentation about his paleoanthropological research.

“So tell me, what’s your five-year plan?” It’s a question that occasionally stumps people when asked in job interviews, on college applications, and during beauty pageants. But for Dr. Christopher J. Bae, an assistant professor in the UH Mānoa Department of Anthropology and member of the Center for Korean Studies, the answer is easy—to use a $1.2 million research grant to conduct paleoanthropological (human evolution) research in Korea through the year 2015.

Awarded the prestigious grant by the Academy of Korean Studies in South Korea in 2010, Bae recently departed for Korea on his quest to reconstruct the past. The award is one of only six proposals in the world funded by the Academy’s Korean Studies Promotion Service (KSPS) division.

It was his unique life story that led to an interest in Anthropology. Born in Korea to Korean parents, Bae was orphaned at the age of one in Seoul. After living in an orphanage for six months, he was adopted by an American family. Thus, his awareness and interest in topics such as race and human variation stemmed from an early age growing up in a Caucasian-American household and neighborhood. In order to discover and understand his ethnic “roots,” Bae’s curiosity took him back to Seoul during his undergraduate studies at Yonsei University on an exchange program.

While his main objective in visiting Korea was initially to reconstruct his own past, Bae has since expanded his focus to address a variety of questions about East Asian paleoanthropology. Besides Korea, Bae has been conducting paleoanthropological field and laboratory research in Japan and China as well. A man of diversity, he has been carrying out collaborative research on a diversity of projects (e.g., hominin fossils, vertebrate taphonomy, lithics) in all three countries.

Bae attributes having spent a good part of his time living and becoming acclimated with each country’s particular culture as facilitating the development of his strong network of collaborators and collaborations. “From the accumulated experience, I believe that the best way to develop a firm understanding of the human evolutionary record in East Asia is to link the hominin morphological and behavioral records,” noted Bae. “As such, my current research interests crosscut different subdisciplines in anthropology and other scientific fields.”

Titled “The Earliest Peopling of the Korean Peninsula: Current Multidisciplinary Perspectives,” Bae’s $1.2 million project will develop an active long-term research program in Korea to facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of eastern Asian human evolution during prehistory. “In particular, this project will integrate datasets from different social and natural science fields to reconstruct a synthetic view of human evolution in the region,” explained Dr. Bae, a resident of Mānoa Valley.

The research project is multidisciplinary in nature, and involves close collaboration with scientists from various institutions in Korea, England and the United States. The proposal was strongly supported by the UH Mānoa’s Department of Anthropology, College of Social Sciences, and the Center for Korean Studies. And though Bae’s project in Korea may end in five years, his journey of self-discovery remains infinite.

For more information, contact Dr. Bae at cjbae@hawaii.edu.

Top photo: Christopher Bae looks for hominin fossil sites during a survey in Guangxi Province, China, in 2008.

Feature: Fruits of their labor

SOFT members proudly showcase their bountiful produce at their weekly farmer's market.

They’re SOFT all the way, and proud of it.  That’s true of students in the Sustainable and Organic Farm Training (SOFT) program, which has finally made the leap from two off-campus sites to the middle of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  Established in 2007 by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the program – one of the largest in the state run by students and faculty – has blossomed into a harvest of vegetable crops, fruit trees and a bountiful herb garden.

Initially, the collegiate cultivation took place on a one-acre site at the UH Research Station in Waimanalo and at the Magoon research facility in Mānoa, giving students a true hands-on experience in horticulture, pest control, nutrient management, business and marketing.  In the initial start-up stage, several participants toured college farms on the mainland to help them plot out and develop a sustainable farm environment of their own. They returned with a bounty of information, and then applied their newfound knowledge to create a successful campus farm program that strives for smart, efficient and sustainable agriculture.

On most weekends, SOFT volunteers, or SOFTies as they like to call themselves, could be found hard at work at either of the two initial farm plots. The crops are harvested regularly and sold at a weekly farmer’s market on campus.  The profits are then used to purchase more plant material, tools and supplies.

But while the farms served as valuable training grounds for the students, the University’s larger campus community was unaware of their growing prowess. “We wanted to have something visible for people to see so they could learn more about our group,” said Gabe Sachter-Smith, a recent graduate of the Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences (TPSS) program who will be pursuing his master’s degree in the Fall. “Establishing on-campus plots is also easier to sustain and can help promote our work by acting as living billboards.”

In cooperation with landscaping manager Roxanne Adams, the green-thumbed students came up with plans to bring sustainable farming to the middle of campus. Their tireless efforts came to fruition this past Spring, and right around Earth Day in April, when they established a plot on the grassy stage of the Sustainability Courtyard.  SOFT volunteers dug up the rich Mānoa earth to create what they envision to be a mini edible garden, planting everything from sunflowers, cassava, basil and rosemary, to sweet potato, taro, coco yam and lemon grass, to name a few.  “It is our hope that this installation will encourage more student involvement,” said SOFTie Jeana Cadby, a senior in the TPSS program. “We look forward to selling these publicly grown veggies and herbs soon.”

SOFT also has plans to create another garden behind the Art Building.  Dubbed “banana walkway,” the plot will feature different varieties of bananas as well as some intercrops such as jicama, squash, beans and sweet potato.  Observed Sachter-Smith, “Since it’s a living system, it is always changing and the many different crops grow at their own pace. We will constantly be rotating and replanting crops to ensure an aesthetically pleasing landscape while maintaining even production. We’ll always have something ready to harvest.”

One person who couldn’t be more thrilled with the student-driven effort is Ted Radovich, a CTAHR specialist in sustainable and organic farming systems, and SOFT’s proud faculty advisor. “With support from CTAHR, UH Landscaping and others, the SOFTies have really taken the initiative to develop self-learning opportunities for themselves and other students,” he said. “They’ve put science and theory learned in the classroom into practice by growing and marketing food.”

To enjoy the bounty of their harvest, come to the SOFTies’ weekly produce sale on Mondays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. in front of the St. John building on Maile Way. Plus, always being sought are volunteers who have an interest in developing skills in sustainable agriculture, and who are willing to work on the three farms. Summer internships are also available. To learn more, send an email to soft@hawaii.edu or visit the website at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/sustainag/soft/.

Top photo: Apple bananas are among the many organic fruits and vegetables grown and sold by SOFT.

Garden shot

CTAHR Workers