At the Interface of AI & Ecology: Heather Lynch Wins Blavatnik Young Scientists Prize

The Institute for AI-Driven Discovery and Innovation's Heather Lynch has become the first Stony Brook University faculty to win the prestigious Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists in the category of Life Sciences. More notably, Lynch is also the first ecologist ever to win this award.

The 2019 Blavatnik Awards also mark the first time in their 13-year history that all three winners were women. Lynch's award, which includes a $250,000 unrestricted scientific prize, was presented for "her unique synthesis of cutting-edge statistics, mathematical models, satellite remote sensing and Antarctic field biology...." 

Working with fellow Microsoft AI for Earth and National Geographic Society grant recipient, Professor Dimitris Samaras in Stony Brook's Department of Computer Science, Lynch is investing in AI to interpret satellite imagery for finding penguin colonies and improving algorithms for such tasks. They seek to understand penguin spatial and temporal patterns to predict population changes and possible extinction due to climate change.

Professor Lynch with gentoo penguins, Petermann Island"The work that we are doing at the interface of remote sensing and AI is really new, and there is so much still to be done," she said. "Right now we annotate each image in isolation, but geographic features, even penguin colonies, are in roughly the same location year after year...moving to annotating imagery time series should allow us to harness some of that information to improve segmentation and classification performance."

One way of doing that is by using Recursive Neural networks (RNNs). "[RNNs] allow us to interpret a series of similar images (i.e., images over time), and we can use of our classification of the prior years to help us find the penguin colony. There is a close correspondence between these RNNs and Bayesian models, and it’s an open area of research to work out exactly how to build these models in the best way." Lynch, Samaras and Petar M. Djuric, chair of the Department Electrical and Computer Engineering, work together on this research.

Professor Lynch is an associate professor of Ecology & Evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Computational Science. Her Lynch Lab is focused on applying quantitative methods to ecological questions in ecology and conservation biology.

Because the amount of environmental data (from the ecosystem level to the level of individual animals) is growing so fast, Lynch believes that traditional methods for analysis are insufficient. "It’s a really exciting time to be working at the interface of ecology and AI," she said. But Lynch also indicated that the challenge is finding those with the AI and computing skills to address the insufficiencies, “It requires students interested in interdisciplinary problem solving, who are patient enough to work across traditional academic disciplines. I see the AI Institute as providing a platform whereby we can keep building these partnerships."

Learn more about Heather Lynch's pioneering work in the Antarctic

Learn more about the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists and the 2019 winners