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For 40 years, a group of Hawaiʻi women have been quietly working to keep America competitive by supporting some of the University of Hawaiʻi’s brightest graduate students.

The Honolulu chapter of Achievement Rewards for College Scientists, or ARCS Foundation, has provided more than $2 million in unrestricted grants to UH Mānoa PhD candidates in scientific fields from astronomy to zoology. ARCS Scholars can use their $5,000 awards in any way that advances their scholarly pursuits.

Identifying coral reef stressors

Raphael Ritson-Williams used his funding to purchase the genetic sequencing equipment that he needs for his research on coral respond to stressors. Coral reefs worldwide suffer from sedimentation and invasive algae caused by human activity on land and from ocean acidification associated with climate change.

Ritson-Williams is working to identify which genes switch on in response to temperature and acidification levels, triggering the corals to produce proteins that precipitate responses such as coral bleaching. His findings will help predict whether corals will adapt and persist in the face of increasing threats. Results of the study will help the public and resource managers protect coral reefs by identifying the stressors that most threaten the future of coral reefs.

Like many ARCS scholars, Ritson-Williams has won academic honors and been published in prestigious scientific journals. He follows in the footsteps of ARCS Honolulu Scholars like Kelly Benoit-Bird, who subsequently received a McArthur “Genius” Grant for her use of sonar navigation and ranging to study the behavior of ocean predators and prey; cosmologist Jabran Zahid, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Luke Flynn, who heads the University of Hawaiʻi’s Space Flight Laboratory.

Raphael Ritson-Williams

Developing a new kind of stethoscope

Some ARCS scholars pursue university research careers, teaching and conducting research. Others move into more entrepreneurial positions. 2015 ARCS Honolulu Scholar Ruthsenne Perron appears to be on the latter track. She is part of a team that is developing a new kind of stethoscope, using microwave technology to monitor cardio-pulmonary vital signs in real time at minimal cost. Applications range from accurate and non-invasive measurement of fluid in the lungs—which is an important sign of impending heart failure and critical vital sign for burn patients and people with pulmonary disease—to wearable gauges that signal dehydration in medical troops.

A doctoral student in electrical engineering, Perron works on wearable textile-based sensors and an integrated wireless system for real-time viewing of vital signs on mobile devices such as cell phones. She used her ARCS funding to present her work at an international conference in Canada, where she could network with fellow researchers and potential employers. In the meantime, she is seeing how the technology works on real patients in clinical trials at Queens Medical Center and getting valuable feedback from medical personnel.

The CP stethoscope team, led by engineering Professor Magdy Iskander, won the 2014 UH Business Plan Competition, took Best of Show in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Program and formed MiWA Technologies to commercialize the invention.

Supporting cutting edge research

Scientific advances that keep the United States on the cutting edge of knowledge formation and technological innovation—that’s what the national non-profit ARCS Foundation is all about. As one of 16 chapters supporting 51 research universities nationwide, the Honolulu Chapter has provided cash awards to more than 600 UH Mānoa scholars in science, engineering, mathematics, computing and health disciplines.

It’s an example of a successful long-term private-public partnership: the grants comes from a mix of endowed funds and annual fundraising by ARCS Foundation members, and designated UH Mānoa programs select the deserving scholars.

The goal is to ensure that the nation has a cadre of bright, talented researchers to address challenges that lie ahead—a goal that increasingly depends on private funding in the face of declining federal support for the kinds of basic research that underlie technological advancements which benefit society.

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