KU wins a cool $19 million grant to study polar ice

Kansas City,MO (04-11-2005)

From The Kansas City Star

LAWRENCE-Sometimes the working relationship between a university professor and a graduate student can pay big dividends.

That is what happened Monday when the National Science Foundation announced it was awarding a $19 million grant to the University of Kansas--the biggest single federal research grant the university has ever received.

KU will use the money to establish a national center to research polar ice and its effect on global climate changes.

At a news conference at Eaton Hall, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway told faculty and students that the grant did not materialize overnight.

"We've been at it 40 years," Hemenway said.

The chancellor was referring to research done about 40 years ago on microwave remote sensing by Richard Moore, now a professor emeritus, and subsequent work by Moore's then-graduate student, Prasad Gogineni. Gogineni, now a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at KU, will be director of the new Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets.

KU won out over 168 proposals nationwide, said Scott Borg, director of the Antarctic science program in the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs in Washington.

"The University of Kansas has a great deal it can be proud of in leading this effort," Borg said. The new center will undertake "a grand challenge" in advancing the understanding of how and why the world's ice sheets are changing, he said.

Gogineni said the center would involve about 25 faculty members from KU. Included will be professors in electrical and computer engineering, aerospace engineering, geography, geology and education.

The aerospace experts will develop unmanned air vehicles that will allow the research team to gather more complete data from the large geographic areas covered with ice, Gogineni said.

Five universities will assist in the effort. They are Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Elizabeth City (N.C.) State University, the University of Maine, Ohio State University and Penn State University.

The five-year grant is the largest single federal research grant received by any university in Kansas. KU is one of only two universities in the nation to be granted a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center this year.

Moore, 81, was in Turkey on Monday and missed the accolades. Moore still meets weekly with graduate students on radar-related research, said David Braaten, an associate professor of geography.

Braaten, who will be the center's deputy director, said he was not surprised KU won the grant in light of the work professors there had done already.

Braaten said Gogineni has developed the best radar-sensing equipment in the world to study ice sheets and is an "incredibly meticulous and driven" leader.

"I get e-mails from him at 2 in the morning," Braaten said. "That's the kind of person he is. He'll wake up and have something on his mind, and he'll e-mail me."

Gogineni grew up in India and attended college there. He arrived at KU in 1979 to work with Moore as a graduate student. For years, Gogineni made annual trips to Greenland to study the ice sheets there.

KU plans another study this summer in Greenland, he said.

The melting taking place today in the polar regions is unprecedented, Gogineni said.

The center will work to develop new radar technologies that can teach researchers more about why that is happening.

As the glaciers melt, the sea level rises. More than 100 million people who live in coastal areas around the world could be affected if the levels keep rising, as expected, Gogineni said.

Scientists who study climate changes say that Arctic warming could drive polar bears and some species of seals toward extinction. In the Midwest, global warming could affect how often and how much precipitation falls, they say.

Braaten said Gogineni and his researchers took the unusual step in the 1990s of immediately publishing the data they produced with the use of the radar instrument Gogineni developed. A number of major discoveries based on Gogineni's data have been published in journals, he said.

Gogineni's research in the 1990s led to Monday's grant, Braaten said. "But we wouldn't be here today without the earlier work from professor Moore."

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