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Alan Ma

Alan Ma

2022 Davidson Fellow
$25,000 Scholarship

Age: 17
Hometown: Portland, OR

Engineering: “Smart Wildlife Sentinel: Protecting Road Ecology with Deep Learning and IoT”

About Alan

My name’s Alan, and I’m a rising senior from Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been mesmerized by the natural beauty and perplexing complexity of wildlife. Inevitably, protecting wildlife has always been close to my heart. My passion for protecting the environment has led me to investigate ecological solutions, particularly at the intersection between mankind and nature. I love the iterative process of creating environmental solutions and problem-solving, which I hope to continue in college and beyond. 

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"I’m deeply honored to have been named a Davidson Fellow this year. I’m grateful to have been afforded this incredible opportunity to share my research and join a community of brilliant young minds. I hope that I can use this platform to inspire the next generation of innovators in solving tomorrow’s challenges."

Project Description

Every year in the US, millions of animals are hit by vehicles, making wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) a real danger to both animals and humans. In addition, road networks represent physical barriers to natural wildlife migration, which, in turn, results in various ecological damages such as habitat fragmentation and population viability.

In this project, I developed a smart ecological sentinel utilizing the Internet of Things (IoT), image recognition, data processing, and data visualization. The sentinel can prevent WVCs by warning drivers early of detected animal presence and also monitors wildlife activity to provide a holistic understanding of ecological behaviors along roads. This solution can mitigate WVC frequency, protecting both human and wildlife lives, and bolstering current wildlife conservation efforts where roadside wildlife activity data is lacking.

Deeper Dive

After a close call with roadkill while driving home on a winding mountain road one evening, I wanted to create solutions that could help prevent these fatal accidents. Talking with the ecologists and road engineers at the Departments of Fish & Wildlife and Transportation, I learned that along the million miles of roadways in the US, less than half are traversable by animals. Consequent to this lack of traversability, WVCs are a major issue in many states and across the globe, especially in areas with large rural populations. Additionally, the lack of accessible wildlife activity data leaves current conservation efforts and infrastructure intended to mitigate WVCs ineffectual.

In this project, I developed a novel smart wildlife sentinel system (SWS) that aims to prevent WVCs via early driver warning and monitor ecological behavior based on species-classified wildlife activity data.
This solution has the potential in preventing WVCs worldwide, especially along dynamic road situations, and can significantly bolster current road ecological conservation efforts where there is a lack of accessible wildlife activity data.

One of the many challenges I faced on this engineering journey was getting started. As an inexperienced 14-year-old, I wasn’t sure who to contact and where to begin my investigation. Without many ecological resources at school or around me, all I knew was: I had a lot of questions and ideas that I wanted to delve into. Countless cold emails later I was lucky enough to hear back from some generous researchers at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), respectively. After the first year of prototyping, I was interested in taking the SWS project to the next level and began to look into image recognition developments. Yet, that same year the COVID pandemic had hit, rendering many of the project deployment opportunities available with the ODOT/ODFW unavailable and all mentorship to be virtual.

However, it was in these difficult times I was connected with the fantastic team of engineers at WildMe for guidance which resulted in joining incubation programs at Conservation X Labs and the MIT EECS/CSAIL departments. Further discussion with the generous staff at the Stanford Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve would lead to incredible, in- depth advice and connect me to my current research mentorship at the UC Davis Road Ecology center. At school as well, my discussions with the science department were always rewarding and genuinely supportive. I’m deeply thankful to all the assistance I have been provided and continue to be afforded today. Nevertheless, without that first step in reaching out, this project would most certainly have not made it this far, and I wouldn’t have been able to meet such wonderful mentors along the way. With a promising third prototype currently being tested in the field at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, I hope that this project can be further matured and implemented along real roads soon.

As humanity continues to expand into the wild, we will inevitably come into conflict with nature. Short-term implementation goals of the SWS hope to deploy on local roads, but WVCs are a global challenge. My ultimate dream is that this project can make its way into real road situations worldwide by actively preventing accidents and aiding road ecology conservation efforts with data. In addition, with the rise in alternative imaging approaches, I plan on testing closed-circuit television or thermal imaging to expand on more effective wildlife activity capturing systems involving live video wildlife recognition. For communication, I am also looking into improving wireless capabilities by utilizing a mesh network-based network and connecting to the vehicle cloud for live traffic feed information on the go.


What is your absolute dream job?

Growing up, I loved the PBS kids show "Wild Kratts" for their day to day missions. Jumping out of Tortuga HQ with the coolest gadgets and tech to explore the natural world, I could only imagine what a life like the Kratt brothers would be. My absolute dream job is still along similar lines. I strive to develop breakthrough innovation which can then tackle environmental challenges in the field. I hope to walk the bridge between technology and the natural world.

If you had your human body, but the head of an animal, what animal would you pick?

I’d pick a caracal! I’ve always been mystified by their ear tufts that flick and flutter like wings. The ultra-sensitive ears act as satellite dishes, picking up noises across vast open environments. What’s more, their eyes have superb night vision giving them an added edge.

What is your favorite tradition or holiday?

Making tang yuan with the family is an all time favorite. Every February, during the lantern festival or 元宵節, the family gathers around the kitchen table to wrap sticky rice. It’s a nice touch of family unity that I always look forward to.

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In The News

Portland, Ore. – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2022 scholarship winners. Among the honorees is 17-year-old Alan Ma of Portland. Ma won a $25,000 scholarship for his project, Smart Wildlife Sentinel: Protecting Road Ecology with Deep Learning and IoT. He is one of only 21 students across the country to be recognized as a 2022 scholarship winner.

Download the full press release here