UC Santa Barbara doctoral student Satish Kumar was one of 32 early-career scientists from 17 nationalities to be recently chosen as a 2024 Schmidt Science Fellow, a prestigious postdoctoral program. Nominated by UCSB, Kumar was the first student in the UCSB College of Engineering to be chosen for this opportunity.

The Schmidt Science Fellows program hand-picks promising scientists from nearly 100 institutions around the world, emphasizing interdisciplinary research. Intertwining the scientific disciplines of engineering and environmental science, Kumar researches computer vision and machine learning, while breaking new ground in mitigating global pollution. 

During his time in the Vision Research Lab at UCSB, Kumar has focused on computer vision and machine learning algorithms. The work involves imagery, whether it be phone screen images, microscopic images or biomedical images such as CT scans and X-rays. Kumar brings his expertise on computer vision to focus specifically on aerial and satellite imagery for mapping pollutants. 

Kumar and his team at the Vision Research Lab developed MethaneMapper, an AI-based tool that incorporates hyperspectral imaging, a technique that utilizes information from the entire electromagnetic spectrum of light, rather than just the visible spectrum involving colors visible to the naked eye. This form of imaging allows the tool to detect specific gases, such as atmospheric methane, that would not otherwise be recognized. With the potential to revolutionize pollution monitoring, this tool could be important in helping mitigate emissions. 

In the same realm of research, Kumar recently launched a company called EyeClimate in September 2023. Their mission is to create efficient solutions for pollution monitoring.

“We are focusing on developing and enhancing more solutions for methane emission detection,” Kumar said about EyeClimate. “It could be from aerial imagery with satellites to airplane based imagery to someone flying in a plane or helicopter with a specific type of camera.”

In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute, Kumar also contributed to the development of a conservation solution that tracks animal diversity using aerial imagery. Termed WildlifeMapper, this tool was used in the Maasai Mara ecosystem in Narok County, Kenya to conduct aerial surveys of large wildlife. This would allow researchers to automatically locate and count wildlife and therefore monitor biodiversity in the area.

Despite these advancements, Kumar acknowledges that pollution and biodiversity monitoring can be expensive and inaccessible to many countries who do not have the resources to focus on conservation efforts.

“Environmental conservation efforts, for example pollution monitoring, are only possible if you have a very specific half a million dollar camera either sitting on a satellite or an airplane,” Kumar said. “So that’s a huge bottleneck.”

As a Schmidt Science Fellow, Kumar plans to continue his research in environmental conservation, this time focusing on using plants as bioindicators of certain pollutants. With this research, Kumar hopes to make pollution monitoring more easily accessible.

“Mosses and lichens — based on what kind of pollutant is present around them and in how much concentration — change morphology or pigment in a particular way,” Kumar said.

Kumar seeks to use these characteristics as bioindicators, allowing him to map the pollutants in the area. As a fellow, he will be collaborating with other pioneering researchers to realize this project. Reflecting on being chosen for this opportunity, Kumar expressed his commitment to research and innovation that serves a greater purpose.

“My goal is to do good quality research and make sure it’s impactful,” Kumar said.