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UH receives $40 million gift for oceanography research

    Oceanographers retrieve a sediment trap, above, pulled from the sea at Station ALOHA. The trap captures sinking particles in the ocean.

University of Hawaii researchers will lead a new $40 million oceanography research project that represents the largest-ever philanthropic gift to UH.

David Karl and Edward DeLong, professors in Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, were awarded the funds by the Simons Foundation to lead the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology, or SCOPE.

The New York City-based foundation is run by mathematician and billionaire founder of Renaissance Technologies, Jim Simons.

The university said the SCOPE project aims to advance understanding of the microscopic organisms that inhabit every drop of seawater and how those creatures control the movement and exchange of energy and nutrients.

“This award will allow us to continue ongoing research at Station Aloha — a site 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) due north of Kahuku Point, where since 1988 the University of Hawaii has been conducting major research operations,” Karl said at a press conference Monday alongside the 186-foot Kilo Moana research vessel used to carry out the work.

DeLong added, “Most of the organisms we’re studying were only discovered about 20 years ago, and that’s one of the reasons for this project, really, is to dig deep into what makes these organisms tick and how they operate together to sustain the ecosystem out at Station Aloha.”

“We’re going to use a lot of different technologies to bring to bear on this question, and that ranges from automated robots that can sample and sense autonomously — you could think of them as peaceful underwater drones — as well as genomic technologies,” he said.

UH President David Lassner said the funding demonstrates the university’s ability to build an economic sector from innovative research.

“A lot of people have wondered, ‘Can we really be serious about building a $1 billion research industry in this state. And I think this is an example of how we’ll do it,” Lassner said. “It isn’t just going to the federal government and cranking in more proposals, but it’s captivating the interest of philanthropists and partners around the country and around the world to begin to build this investment in a research and innovation economy for Hawaii that advances the frontiers of human knowledge.”

The award will be given over five years, with the first $8 million installment expected on July 1, Karl said.

UH is leading the project, with partners joining from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, University of California-Santa Cruz and University of Washington.

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