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July 11, 2023

Research, workforce development and economic growth news stories and other feature articles from the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Southeast, University of Alaska System Office and the UA Foundation. Compiled by the University of Alaska System Office of Public Affairs.

University of Alaska Anchorage

Outdoor Leadership team takes on Denali expedition

PWSC graduate Rafael Alfaro and current student Evan Clupper recently led a capstone trip to Denali National Park with Dr. Benjamin Rush, assistant professor of outdoor leadership. 

The main objective for the trip was to go up to Camp 2 (11,000 feet). The team ended up going even farther to High Camp (17,200 feet).

To prepare for the trip, Rafael and Evan had taken a series of outdoor leadership courses, including winter camping, crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue, mountaineering, and ice climbing, in which they learned to plan and prepare for a multi-week trek through the mountains. They underwent months of extensive training, including spending days at Thompson Pass camping, pulling sleds, and preparing food for their trip.

Contact: Vicki Heisser

two of the team members descend denali
PWSC graduate Rafael Alfaro and current student Evan Clupper recently led a capstone trip to Denali National Park with Dr. Benjamin Rush, assistant professor of outdoor leadership. (Rafael Alfaro photo)

Alaskan innovators awarded $2.5M grant to bring fungus-based insulation solution to global communities

The demand for sustainable and organic insulation solutions continues to grow due to increasing energy requirements for heating, cooling and powering buildings, as well as the energy used for manufacturing and shipping construction materials and temperature-sensitive items. A team of Alaska experts is tackling this issue by developing a cost-effective, bio-based insulation material that is carbon-negative and produced from fungus.

The team developed fungus-based insulation material that provides thermal performance similar to polystyrene while being non-toxic and having no negative effects on the environment. It can be safely composted or recycled at the end of its life. This insulation material can reduce the carbon footprint and shipping costs of construction materials and help mitigate the impact of plastic foam insulation materials. The project will also create jobs and reduce wildfire potential by removing dead trees from the landscape.

Although the project is rooted in Alaska's local resources, the team is looking forward to scaling up the technology and implementing it in other regions of the world. The team has three years to explore the possibilities of expanding the technology, thanks to the funding from the Advanced Research Project Agency of the UA Department of Energy in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Lab and VTT Technical Research Center of Finland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin.

Contact: Austin Osborne

UAA hosts Arctic Showcase

On June 28, UAA hosted an Arctic Showcase for the UA Arctic Leadership Steering Committee. The committee members enjoyed tours, conversations, and empowering presentations from some of UAA's brightest leaders.

The group was welcomed by Chancellor Sean Parnell. Vice Chancellor for Research Aaron Dotson hosted the presentations. The first half centered around growing Alaska's workforce and circumpolar health solutions. The second half of the day was spent discussing security and natural resources as well as economy and policy solutions.

On the significance of the event, Aaron Dotson said, "While working directly in the Arctic provides a benefit, this event illustrated that those empowered with Arctic knowledge/skills gained at UAA will shape the Arctic future from Anchorage, Juneau, or places outside Alaska such as Washington, DC."

Contact: Susan Bell

University of Alaska Fairbanks

UAF drone program eyes goal of remote cargo delivery

A fully autonomous plane completed more than 25 test flights over 60 hours to five rural Alaska communities in June from Fairbanks International Airport as part of an effort to one day deliver air cargo using unmanned drones or planes.

The test flight was done in partnership with aviation technology company Merlin, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Center for UAS Integration (ACUASI), and Everts Air Cargo.

The test flights are part of a $1 million contract from the Federal Aviation Administration to demonstrate a highly automated flight control system in conjunction with a safety pilot.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature have provided support for the drone program in the last few years by providing additional funding, including $10 million in this fiscal year’s capital budget.

ACUASI is in the process of building a 4,800-square-foot hangar in Nenana for drone storage and cargo-related flight tests. ACUASI is eying setting up other test facilities in Valdez and Palmer to test beyond visual line of sight research.

Contact: Jack Barnwell

the Merlin aircraft sits at the Fairbanks International Airport
Merlin, in partnership with the UAF Alaska Center for UAS Integration and Events Cargo Air, completed 25 test flights between Fairbanks and five remote communities using experimental Cesna Grand Caravan plane piloted with an autonomous system in June. (Photo courtesy of Merlin)

NASA awards Alaska Satellite Facility five-year, $70 million contract

The Alaska Satellite Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will continue to operate NASA’s Distributed Active Archive Center for synthetic aperture radar under a contract that extends the work through 2028.

NASA announced the $70 million contract award on June 22. The contract takes effect Saturday, July 1.

The Alaska Satellite Facility employs nearly 100 people. That number has almost doubled over the past five years due to additional contracts with NASA, other federal agencies and commercial entities.

The facility is preparing for a major increase in the amount of data it archives and distributes. The additional data will come with the launch of a SAR satellite by NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization. 

The satellite will provide information about Earth’s changing ecosystems and surfaces, biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise and groundwater. It also will support a host of other applications, according to NASA.

Contact: Rod Boyce

Students from across Alaska work together to address problems in their rural communities

Students from the T3 Alaska summer program presented projects last week that they have been working on for the past five weeks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Through the program, 37 students from around Alaska got to travel to villages, talk to researchers, learn from elders, and create and implement real-life solutions to problems relevant to them and their communities.

Students in the program started in Anchorage before splitting up into four teams that would focus on different genres of research. Each team traveled to different communities around Alaska to get a hands-on understanding of the issues they are facing. Afterward, they went to UAF to spend the next 2½ weeks doing research, problem solving and building prototypes to explore solutions to the problems they learned about during their excursion.

Contact: Adam Low

University of Alaska Southeast

Chancellor Carey bids farewell a she retires

Jun. 30 was Karen Carey's last day as Chancellor for the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS).

An open house was held in the Chancellor's Suite Friday afternoon to wish her farewell with light refreshments.

"A real honor to be the chancellor at UAS. I am going to greatly miss this campus and all the great people that I've gotten to know. I am so pleased that we hired Aparna Palmer as the new chancellor. She's going to be just great," Carey said. "I've had the last two weeks to overlap with her and she's learning quickly and I think UAS is going to be in good hands. I'm going to remain in Juneau because I love it here so much. People will see me at UAS and I'll be busy supporting anything I can here at the campus."

Contact: Keni Cambell

Karen Carey with Spike, the UAS mascot during a campus event
Jun. 30 was Karen Carey's last day as Chancellor for the University of Alaska Southeast. Carey says she will continue to cheer on UAS on the sidelines.

UAS professors receive awards from the Sealaska Heritage Institute

Darren Snyder of Juneau received the Community Educator Award. Snyder teaches through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Juneau District. He has worked on many different projects with the community and in many diverse organizations. His input on the South Douglas West Juneau Area Plan Steering Committee exemplifies values in protecting land inclusive of recognition of traditional­­ ownership for Mayflower Island and promoting community gardening for local food independence. He has worked on many educational projects, including through Tlingit and Haida and Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI’s) STEAM projects. 

SHI gave its Distinguished Leadership Award to Dr. X’unei Lance Twitchell of Juneau. Twitchell is a professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast who has worked tirelessly to revitalize the Tlingit language. He also has been instrumental in teaching the language and in developing materials to learn Lingít. 

Contact: Kathy Dye

UA System Office

University of Alaska to co-host Wilson Center Summit on Critical Minerals in the Arctic

The University of Alaska is partnering with the Wilson Center, the Department of Energy's Arctic Energy Office, and the RAND Corporation, to co-host a two-day dialogue about critical minerals in the North American Arctic this week.

The July 12 and 13 summit, “Critical Minerals in the Arctic: Forging the Path Forward,” will generate policy recommendations for developing critical mineral resources in the Arctic, in the context of US national security, energy, climate, and technology goals. 

President Pitney will provide opening remarks on Wednesday morning and moderate a discussion with U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski on Thursday. Both segments will be available to view via livestream.

Contact: Jonathon Taylor 

logo for Alaska's minerals
Alaska's Critical Minerals summit will take place in Washington D.C. this year but those who register can attend virtually.

Supreme Court Rulings: How Last Week’s Decisions Impact UA

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two highly-anticipated rulings that have impacts on higher education. In the first case, the Court determined the Biden Administration lacked legal authority to provide student loan debt relief to certain borrowers. And in the second case, the Court ruled that use of race as a factor in college admissions (commonly known as Affirmative Action) is unconstitutional.

Student Debt Relief

UAA, UAF, and UAS are consistently ranked as some of the most affordable public universities in the United States. Many students attending UA also have the opportunity to access non-loan financial aid - including the Alaska Performance Scholarship, UA Scholars Program, Pell Grants, and other tuition assistance programs. 

Affordability and accessibility are also priorities of President Pitney and the Board of Regents. Goals and Measures established by the President and Board include reducing the percentage of students graduating with debt, lowering the average debt of graduating students, and increasing the percentage of students who receive non-loan financial aid. As an institution, we’ll continue to support and promote efforts systemwide that empower students for long-term success.

Affirmative Action

For now, we don’t anticipate the Court’s decision on affirmative action will have a significant impact on admission processes, although UA Leadership is still reviewing the ruling. 

UAA, UAF, and UAS are a little different than many universities, in that their missions include what would, in most systems, be community colleges. As a result, admission to UA is open to anyone who meets the minimum academic requirements of the university to which one applies, and race is not a factor in whether a student is admitted.

Contact: Jonathon Taylor

Bridget Weiss to serve as ACEC Liaison

As of July 1, Bridget Weiss has begun working as the new liaison for the Alaska College of Education Consortium (ACEC). 

As the Liaison for ACEC, Bridget will be working directly with each of the three schools of education. She’ll support each of the Universities in their programmatic efforts, and help foster partnerships and coordination statewide to meet community needs.

Bridget holds a Master’s in Mathematics from Eastern Washington University, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Washington State University. Her work has been in districts as small as 1,800 students, and as large as 29,000. She’s also the current chair of the Alaska Superintendents Association.

Bridget said she looks forward to bringing her experience to ACEC to work collaboratively across the state with districts, and help each of our universities’ academic plans for teacher education programs thrive based on their institutional strengths and regional demand.

Contact: Jonathon Taylor

UA Foundation

Student government creates two new scholarships

One of the best ways to support students is through a scholarship, but it takes a major commitment to endow one. Some groups work for years to raise the funds. 

So it’s not every day that a group of university students can start not just one but two scholarships. That's exactly what the Associated Students of the University of Alaska Fairbanks did this spring with the endowment of two $50,000 scholarship funds.

ASUAF President Ashlyn Brooks said students had talked about creating a scholarship for a while, using money from the sale of land owned by ASUAF several years ago. Some proceeds had been spent, including on a project to repair the Polar Alley bowling lanes at the Wood Center, but not all.

One new scholarship is for students with a GPA of 3.8 or above. The second is for students with a GPA of 2.5 or above who demonstrate how they contribute to the university or community.

Contribute to this scholarship fund

Contact: UAF Development

The five students pose together in the ASUAF office
From left, Sarah Finney and Cole Osowski, ASUAF’s incoming vice president and president, join Riley von Borstel, who is a past president, and Ashlyn and Pierce Brooks, the outgoing president and vice president, at the student government’s offices in Wood Center in April 2023. (Photo by Eric Engman)

For more information on the UA Newswire, contact Integrated Media Manager Rebecca Lawhorne at ralawhorne@alaska.edu