Making waves against sea-level rise threats

ASU research collaboration with UH Hilo creates opportunities for minority students in coastal field research and data analysis

October 25, 2021

A new research partnership between Arizona State University and the University of Hawaii at Hilo aims to better understand the vulnerability of island ecosystems, reefs and island communities against rising sea levels, while enhancing research opportunities for students from underrepresented populations. 

Assistant Professor Haunani Kane and Associate Professor Robin Martin, both in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, have partnered with Assistant Professor John Burns from the University of Hawaii at Hilo to equip students with the skills necessary to address the impact of climate change, particularly sea-level rise on diverse coastal ecosystems. Undergraduate and graduate students spanning both ASU and UH Hilo will be trained with the skills necessary to address the impact of climate change, particularly sea-level rise on diverse coastal ecosystems. Photo courtesy of Haunani Kane Download Full Image

The project titled “Quantifying vulnerability to sea-level rise across multiple costal typologies” is funded through NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project, which is aimed at benefiting minority-serving institutions to bring Earth-observing technology into the hands of underrepresented students.

The project supports a doctoral student at ASU and two undergraduate and two graduate students at UH Hilo. The two universities will share resources to mentor ASU and UH Hilo students, all of whom will have access to professors at both universities.

“This project will provide students the opportunity to develop skills to understand how their homes are being impacted now and in the future by sea-level rise,” said Kane, a Native Hawaiian climate scientist based in Hilo, Hawaii. “Through this process we hope to engage our students with the community and local policymakers to develop solutions and plan for future impacts.”

Understanding vulnerability of Hawaii nearshore ecosystems

Prior research conducted by Kane has shown that when sea-level rise exceeds a critical elevation point, nearshore aquatic, intertidal and coastal ecosystems become more vulnerable. Building upon that work, the current joint research project aims to use the Big Island of Hawaii as a case study. 

Students and researchers will map and measure areas island-wide by combining remote-sensing technologies with local measurements of tidal variation and water level, and landcover surveys for a clearer understanding of the effects of climate change on the biology and ecology of Hawaii’s coastlines. 

Undergraduate and graduate students spanning both ASU and UH Hilo will be trained in a multiscale approach that combines the datasets and imagery derived from satellites, airplanes and unmanned aerial systems. 

Students will also learn how to survey coastal ecosystems using high-resolution GPS. Under the partnership, Kane and Martin will provide students with mentoring and fieldwork training, and they'll assist with analysis of datasets. 

“Communities are the best stewards of their place and its resources,” Martin said. “Every opportunity to support the open sharing of knowledge will make us more resilient in this rapidly changing world.”

Expanding ASU educational opportunities in Hawaii

The project provides a unique opportunity to support and grow Native Hawaiian and culturally mindful researchers in Hawaii. 

While UH Hilo offers master's degrees in marine science and conservation, there are not yet options on Hawaii Island for students to pursue a PhD.  

“We hope the ASU-UH Hilo partnership will fill this gap by providing students the opportunity to pursue and obtain PhDs that support community-based research,” Kane said. 

Also through the project, ASU faculty are partnering with the County of Hawaii, through the ASU node of the NASA DEVELOP program, to create an updatable data tool to utilize NASA Earth observation data as well as the findings from their study for continued real-time assessment of community vulnerability to sea-level rise.

“We thank NASA for their foresight in prioritizing research excellence and student mentorship at minority-serving institutions like the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and we are humbled to play a part in the success of Native Hawaiian students,” Kane said. “As an Indigenous scientist, I realize that the traditional academic system was not established to ensure the success of minorities and Native students.”

“It will take creative approaches that acknowledge the history of our people and support our people’s ancestral connection to place and community. I hope that this project and future projects with students at ASU can create safe spaces for students of all backgrounds to pursue research.”

Rocky shoreline ecosystems dominate younger volcanic islands like the island of Hawaii and are currently overlooked in most sea-level rise assessments. Students will use unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) to capture real-time flooding events and analyze impacts on coastal ecosystems. Photo courtesy of Haunani Kane

David Rozul

Communications Specialist, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


New ASU professor studies how culture protects adolescents against mental health problems, substance use

October 25, 2021

Latino adolescents have disproportionally high rates of substance use problems and rates of anxiety and depression symptoms. Though Latinos now make up almost 20% of the U.S. population and were the fastest-growing group in the 2020 census, they remain underrepresented in research studies.  

Rick Cruz, a new assistant professor in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology, is working to change that by focusing on the factors that contribute to underrepresented groups experiencing mental health or substance use problems.  Rick Cruz, assistant professor of psychology. Rick Cruz, assistant professor of psychology. Photo by Robert Ewing/ASU Download Full Image

“In my work, I study people who often do not get a lot of attention in research. I aim to publish my work in mainstream academic journals to communicate the unique social and cultural experiences of ethnic minority groups,” Cruz said.

One of the focuses of Cruz’s Youth Development, Context and Prevention Lab is the impact of cultural change in American teenagers who emigrated from Mexico or who had family members who emigrated. The concept of cultural change reflects how these teenagers balance the cultural identity they get from their family and home life with American culture.

“America has a cultural richness, with a lot of different cultures and ways of thinking. My research looks at how children navigate different cultural identities. Do they choose one that fits them? Or, do they keep some parts to show off and adapt some from the mainstream environment?” Cruz said. “Ultimately, we want to know how cultural change relates to children being at risk for, or protected from, mental health problems like depression, anxiety and substance use.”

A common way to measure cultural change is by what language kids speak at home and at school. In addition to spoken language, Cruz also assesses family values and ethnic identity. His research focuses on how these three domains of culture — language, values and identity — change over time in the same group of participants. Knowing how changes happen over time lets Cruz connect specific cultural domains to future mental health problems or substance use. Findings from his research can be used to design interventions that help at-risk kids. 

“Keeping cultural heritage — including language, family customs and values and cultural identity — often helps and protects ethnic-minority teenagers from drug use and mental health problems. It is important that our interventions and policies encourage kids to keep their ethnic cultural heritage, as they also develop and strengthen their American cultural identity,” Cruz said.

Cruz also works to bring evidence-based services out of university labs and into the community. Before coming to ASU, he worked at Utah State University and served on substance abuse prevention coalitions for the state of Utah. He plans to continue that line of work in Arizona.

“It is important to me to stay connected to what is happening on the ground in the community and make sure that families have easy access to evidence-based information and services that help children have positive mental health and substance use outcomes,” Cruz said.

Science writer, Psychology Department