S. Kumar – Schmidt Science Fellow

Just a few months before completing his PhD in ECE, Satish Kumar makes UCSB history, becoming the university’s first COE graduate student named a prestigious Schmidt Science Fellow

photo of kumar

From the COE News article – "A Historic Fellowship" 

The Schmidt Science Fellow 2024 cohort includes 32 members from 26 institutions, who will enter a year-long Science Leadership Program and receive funding for a one- to two-year research placement in a new field of science at a new institution.

“I was shocked, and it took a few days for me to process what this meant for my future,” said Satish Kumar, who said the fellowship eliminated the biggest constraint for most postdoctoral researchers, which is funding. “The greatest benefit of being a Schmidt Science Fellow is that I can pursue high-risk research that typically would not be financially supported because the project is completely exploratory.” 

Eric and Wendy Schmidt launched the Schmidt Science Fellows Program in 2018 to help researchers expand their work across areas of study and build a community of interdisciplinary thinkers dedicated to solving the world’s biggest challenges. 

“It’s at the edges of things — ecosystems, borders, disciplines — when the most interesting ideas are developed, solutions that don’t arise from any single approach,” said Wendy Schmidt in a news release announcing the 2024 cohort. 

Kumar has already experienced the benefits of interdisciplinary research, thriving as a graduate researcher in UCSB’s collaborative culture. Advised by B.S. Manjunath, professor and chair of the ECE Department, Kumar designs novel algorithms for large-scale solutions, focusing on computer vision (CV) and machine learning. Kumar and his colleagues developed MethaneMapper, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered hyperspectral imaging tool that detects real-time methane emissions and traces them to their sources. The tool works by processing hyperspectral data gathered during airborne scans of the target area. The project united nine prominent research groups worldwide, including scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Harvard, and Stanford. The interdisciplinary endeavor resulted in a published paper, in which Kumar was listed as the lead author, that was eventually recognized as a “Special Highlight,” an honor given to only the top 2.5% of submissions at the 2023 Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR) Conference, one of the top CV conferences in the world. Kumar also spearheaded collaborations with the Smithsonian Institute to develop WildlifeMapper, a project designed to create new detection and tracking methods for studying animal movement patterns in the wild.

“Satish is driven by a desire to use AI and computer vision to enhance quality of life, particularly in response to current environmental and climate-change-related challenges,” said Manjunath. “His experience in a diverse array of interdisciplinary research projects, his enthusiasm, and his commitment align perfectly with the Schmidt Fellowship’s goals.”

As a 2024 Schmidt Fellow, Kumar will examine if plants can serve as bioindicators to detect and mitigate global pollution. He says that researchers in Japan are currently studying what happens internally after the pigments of mosses and lichens change. Kumar will take a different approach, using novel computer vision (CV) algorithms to determine how plants respond to pollutants by using aerial and satellite imagery to monitor how their spectral properties change. 

“I want to start with moss and lichens because they are available in clusters, they are visible from aerial and satellite imagery,” explained Kumar, who completed his undergraduate studies at the National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra. “I plan to collaborate with people who are already working in this field. They can bring their expertise to the table, as will I as an engineer, and we can solve this problem together.”

In addition to being interdisciplinary, Kumar’s research projects have another common trait, they are spurred by his desire to improve the world. The goal of the MethaneMapper project was to detect methane-emission sources, which had become a top global priority after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported methane was more than 80 times more potent as carbon dioxide for trapping. His work with the Smithsonian Institute and collaborators in Kenya on WildlifeMapper led to the development of more effective conservation strategies to protect wildlife and protect the plant. His Schmidt-supported project represents the next phase in his pursuit of impactful and interdisciplinary research. 

“If we can track spectral changes, then maybe we can find a way to mitigate the pollution before it gets worse and becomes irreversible,” said Kumar. “This is another opportunity for me to effect change.”

Kumar will decide where he will conduct his postdoctoral research in the next few months.

COE News – "A Historic Fellowship" 

S. Kumar, I. Arevalo, ASM Iftekhar, BS Manjunath – "MethaneMapper: Spectral Absorption aware Hyperspectral Transformer for Methane Detection, 2023 Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR) Conference