SJSU Fire Weather Research Workshop Highlights Advances in Wildfire Prediction and Tracking

Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

Photo courtesy of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center

California braces for yet another menacing fire season

Twice a month, San José State researchers collect samples from local vegetation, or “fuels”—and what they found for April was foreboding: Craig Clements, director of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, told KPIX 5 News last week.

“This is the time of year when the fuels should have the most moisture content of the season, and they’re actually the lowest we’ve ever measured for April,” he said in the news report.

But there’s hope: Fire prediction and tracking tools are advancing—a key takeaway from SJSU’s Fire Weather Research Workshop held April 8-9—and the university is leading the effort in providing fire management agencies with state-of-the-art resources to help curb the spread of wildfires.

The virtual event drew hundreds of researchers, students and fire management stakeholders from 20 countries to discuss the latest research and technology on fighting wildfires.

On the same day, California Gov. Gavin Newson announced a $536 million plan to prepare the state for the upcoming fire season. The California Legislature passed the package on April 12, and Newsom signed it April 13.

Intel from above the flames

Once a windstorm and an ignition come together, there’s little to be done.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop that fire,” explained Clements.

The best shot is to try to contain the fire with an “initial attack,” he continued. “That’s where remote sensing technology comes in, because the sooner you can detect the fire, the faster you can get into it.”

WRF-SFIRE is a forecast and modeling system—and a crucial resource to help curb the spread of wildfires—that relies on remote sensing technology. Developed and operated by SJSU, the system pairs data from satellite and infrared imaging with a simulation tool, and it combines a weather forecast model (Weather Research Forecast) with a fire-spread model (SFIRE).

During the workshop, faculty shared updates on WRF-SFIRE, including the addition of wildfire smoke dispersion forecasts, improved data input and analysis, more options for running simulations, and even a mobile-friendly interface.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor of wildfire modeling, shared how WRF-SFIRE now can model smoke behavior based on fire-spread predictions.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor of wildfire modeling, shared how WRF-SFIRE now can model smoke behavior based on fire-spread predictions.

But while tracking and prediction technology is advancing, not enough satellite and infrared imaging data is being gathered in day-to-day fire management operations, noted Miguel Valero Peréz, assistant professor of wildfire behavior and remote sensing at SJSU. He said that bringing that process up to speed is crucial and requires widespread collaboration.

“We need to collaborate with everyone—fire management agencies, academia, industry. We can only solve this problem if we work together,” Valero Peréz emphasized.

Solving a bigger problem

Newsom’s package may be able to help the state get ahead of the game as another dangerous fire season approaches. His plan provides funding to invest in workforce training, vegetation and terrain management, home protection and more.

But the effort to track conditions needs to be year-round, Clements told NBC Bay Area News.

“We need to be doing predictions for the conditions that would lead up to a severe fire season, so using the state-of-the-science modeling we have at San José State and running that operationally throughout the whole season versus a fire here and a fire there like we usually do,” he explained on the news report.

Joaquin Ramirez is principal consultant with Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company that partners with SJSU by using WRF-SFIRE to assist management agencies like Cal Fire during fire season. In 2020, they offered Cal Fire support with more than 9,000 fires.

Wildfires in 2020 California

Joaquin Ramirez of Technosylva, Inc., a wildfire technology company, provided a look back at 2020 fires in California.

He said the workshop is proof of the exciting research and technology in progress, but that there’s still much to do when it comes to solving the wider problem.

“An all-hands job is needed, starting from supporting citizens that understand that we have to live with fire in a smarter way—and that we need to support scientists as much as we support our firefighters.”

A community service

Clements said that while the workshop is about exchanging research and ideas, it’s also about providing information directly to those fighting fires on the front lines.

Because it’s free and several topics are covered in a shorter amount of time, it can be a good alternative to a conference, which might not always be an option for fire management agency employees.

“It’s part of our service to the community to host this workshop and to have it to be free to anyone,” he explained. “It’s about accessibility to the knowledge.”

WRF-SFIRE is available on mobile platforms

WRF-SFIRE is now accessible on mobile devices, a new addition to the system by wildfire researchers at SJSU.

Martin Kurtovich, senior utilities engineer for California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), said their staff participated to engage on important fire science topics—particularly wildfire modeling and predictions for forecasting future fire conditions.

He added, “I appreciate the important work being done at SJSU in not only conducting important research on California wildfires but also training future leaders in wildfire management.”

Learn more about SJSU’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center here.

How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Health and Well-being of the LGBTQ+ Community?: A Q&A With Laurie Drabble

Laurie Drabble.

Laurie Drabble, associate dean for research and faculty.

It’s known that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning+ (LGBTQ+) community face health disparities driven by social stigma and discrimination. But what happens when you introduce a global pandemic?

Laurie Drabble, associate dean for research and faculty with the San José State University College of Health and Human Sciences, explored the impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTQ+ community by serving as co-editor of a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, which was published earlier this year.

The issue also featured her recent research exploring alcohol and marijuana use among LGBTQ+ women during the pandemic.

The SJSU Editorial and News team sat down with Drabble to learn more:

What is the biggest takeaway from this special issue?

Laurie Drabble (LD): Social stigma and discrimination are important drivers of disparities in risk for depression, anxiety and suicidality among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-binary groups. LGBTQ+ people also reported more job loss and financial difficulty compared to heterosexual and cisgender people. These risks were amplified during the with COVID-19 pandemic and need to be addressed.

What surprised you about the research findings?

LD: Research in the special issue found that LGBTQ+ individuals were more likely than heterosexual people to adhere to social distancing guidelines. This may not be entirely surprising, given collective experience with the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.

That past experience heightened community buy-in about the importance of public health strategies to curb disease transmission—and contributed to viewing adherence to public health guidelines as more of a collective responsibility than an individual choice.

However, adhering to guidelines was also associated with psychological distress, which underscores the importance of both formal and social support in public health crises.

This issue pulls together data and research that spans the globe. Did the U.S. stand out?

LD: I was struck by the commonalities between countries. In particular, studies described the negative impact of losing access to LGBTQ+ positive spaces, reduced access to social support, and concerns about invisibility and potential discrimination.

It was also notable that LGBTQ+ people across countries use technology to connect with community, friends and family more than heterosexual and cisgender groups. This is likely a consequence of being part of a community that is defined by common identity rather than location. So, many LGBTQ+ people already used apps, social media and technology tools to find community before the pandemic.

Health disparities already existed in the LGBTQ+ community. Are we making any progress in closing these gaps?

LD: We were making progress in some ways. For example, research has consistently found that reducing structural stigma—such as the legalization of same-sex marriage—has helped reduce disparities in mental health outcomes.

However, research from our special issue and other studies suggest that LGBTQ+ people—particularly LGBTQ people of color—are disproportionately experiencing health and economic harms associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to make sure that policies and services intended to address the impact of the pandemic include the needs of LGBTQ+ populations.

Let’s talk about your research focusing on LGBTQ+ women and marijuana and alcohol use during the pandemic. What surprised you about what you learned?

LD: One of the more interesting findings was the degree to which routines or norms associated with alcohol and marijuana use were disrupted or changed.

For example, some study participants described drinking more because they used alcohol to mark the end of the day, and many described using more alcohol and marijuana to simply relieve stress or boredom. Others used less, because they were not spending time in social settings where they would typically drink alcohol or use marijuana with friends.

Sexual minority women had greater risks for hazardous drinking and drug use compared to heterosexual women before the pandemic, so it will be important to continue to study [post pandemic] whether or not these risks have been amplified over time.

Now that we have this information, what do we need to do about it?

LD: First, we need to continue to reduce stigma and address the economic impacts of the pandemic that disproportionately impact people of color and sexual and gender minorities.

For example, a growing number of states have passed harmful laws allowing health and social service providers to be exempt on religious grounds from laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex or gender identity. These trends are deeply concerning, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, given our research suggesting that LGBTQ+ people are frequent users of Internet-based communications and apps, enhancing access to online and remote health and mental health services would be timely.

Third, the research in this issue highlighted the importance of access to community and social support. So it is critical to provide financial support to ensure the survival of LGBTQ+ health and social service organizations, as well as LGBTQ+-centered physical spaces.

How can this information help us better care for the LGBTQ+ members of our SJSU community?

LD: For many LGBTQ+ young adults, university communities are important for finding safe and affirming support, particularly for students who may need to live with unsupportive families for financial reasons. Providing opportunities for social support and counseling—such as those provided by the SJSU PRIDE Center and Student Services—are crucial.

Read more about Drabble’s research and these topics.

Geology Professor Kim Blisniuk Unearths New Information About Southern California’s Next “Big One”

Kim Blisniuk, Associate Professor of Geology

Photo: Patrick Record

Ten years ago, two female geologists went for a hike in the Coachella Valley desert along a southern portion of the San Andreas Fault. One of them was Kimberly Blisniuk, now an associate professor of geology at San José State University. The pair spent days in the desert, traversing the landscape, studying its ridges and formations.

They weren’t sure what they were looking for. The San Andreas is a well-studied fault: The roughly 750-mile geographical rift running the length of most of California is positioned to set off what’s known as the next “Big One”—a massive earthquake predicted to strike Southern California, devastating the Los Angeles area, in particular.

Still, Blisniuk wanted to see if the terrain revealed something—anything—that might have been missed or not yet understood by geologists before them.

Sure enough, she found something. And after a decade of work to confirm her discovery, Blisniuk’s research, published March 24 in Science Advances, indicates that the highly anticipated earthquake—which scientists say is about 80 years overdue—might not ravage LA as much as previously thought.

Read the full story about Blisniuk’s findings here.

Annual SJSU Conference to Encourage Women to ‘Reimagine the Future’ of Engineering

Silicon Valley Women in Engineering Conference 2021

Diana Knobler, ‘22 Biomedical Engineering, grew up in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles neighborhood, where it was rare for high school students to attend four-year universities. After arriving at San José State, Knobler was surprised to discover she was even more of an exception to the rule than she thought.

“My introductory engineering course had three times as many male students as it did female students, and even fewer Latinx students,” Knobler explained.

That’s a big reason why she decided to attend this year’s Silicon Valley Women in Engineering Conference, which will be held virtually on Saturday, March 20, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The conference, in its seventh year, is hosted by the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering at San José State.

The conference’s theme is “Reimagine the Future,” and the event is open to students at SJSU and other higher ed institutions who want to learn about current trends and innovations in the field.

Keynote speakers include Renée DiResta, technical research manager for Stanford Internet Observatory; Ann Lee-Karlon, senior vice president of Genentech; and Jessica J. Marquez, human-systems engineer for NASA Ames Research Center. They will speak on how to detect misinformation on social media, new advances in biotechnology and future trends in space technology.

Attendees can choose from 12 technical talks about emerging technologies and six professional development sessions. They can also mingle with representatives from more than 50 Silicon Valley companies—including sponsors Google, IBM, Netgear, Lam Research and several others—during the conference’s Innovation Showcase.

The overall mission is to educate students, provide them with potential mentors and role models, and to create a community for women engineers in the Silicon Valley, according to Belle Wei, the Carolyn Guidry Chair of Engineering Education and Innovative Learning.

“Women are a minority in engineering classrooms—less than 20 percent of students in an engineering classroom are women,” said Wei, who serves on the conference committee.

“All of these speakers are highly accomplished women professionals,” she continued. “We want them to see that these women have worked hard, had a strategy, persevered and have been successful.”

Many of the students who attend the conference are in a position similar to Knobler’s. Jinny Rhee, conference chair and associate dean of undergraduate programs and student success for the College of Engineering, said attendees often come from underrepresented groups or are first-generation college students.

“So they might not have some of the support structures and infrastructure that other engineering students may take for granted,” Rhee added. “We want to allow them to reimagine the role engineering can take in a developed society. Engineering is there to make the world a better place, and we don’t want anyone to lose sight of that.”

Knobler does want to make the world a better place: She plans to one day introduce life-changing medical devices into the health-care field. After her first semester at SJSU, Knobler joined an engineering and technical sciences sorority, The Beta Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Omega Epsilon, and she said having a female support system has made all the difference.

“Being connected to so many amazing women through this conference feels like the first step to building an industry-level support system,” Knobler explained. “I hope to use the knowledge I gain from these women to become successful in the industry myself and one day return to do the same for [the next generation of] young female engineers.”

Laura Guio, ‘86 Marketing, is doing just that. When she entered the engineering industry more than 30 years ago, there were not many women to whom she could look for inspiration and guidance.

“Fast forward to today, and there are more women tech leaders, but not as many as I would have expected by this point in time,” said Guio, who now serves as general manager and executive for IBM. “As a woman technology leader and an SJSU graduate, I feel it is my responsibility and privilege to talk about my experience and encourage others while sharing my journey.”

Guio will talk about her experiences during a panel discussion on developing career strategies. Rhee and Wei want to see female students persist in their engineering careers long after graduation, but that doesn’t always happen.

“We know a lot of women leave technology fields soon after they graduate for various reasons, and that’s a shame,” Rhee noted. “The research says that the stronger your engineering identity, the more likely you are to get your degree and persist in the field after you graduate.”

They will ask attendees to complete pre- and post-event surveys to better understand how the conference can play a role in fostering that strong identity.

Guio said she wants attendees of the conference to know there are plenty of opportunities for success and many ways to pursue them.

“Everyone’s journey is their own, and you have to know yourself, your skills and what drives and motivates you to begin to understand the path you want to take,” Guio said.

“Technology needs diversity in representation, which brings diversity in thought. Studies show if you have a diverse mix of talent, this will improve performance and success. Most of all, I want to encourage these students to push forward, dream big, but take it one step at a time.”

To learn more about the conference, visit 2021.siliconvalleywie.org.

Electrical Engineering Faculty Receives NSF CAREER Award for Cryogenic Electronics Research

Hiu-Yung Wong, assistant professor of electrical engineering at SJSU, with graduate students

Assistant Professor Hiu Yung Wong; Johan Saltin, ’20 MS Electrical Engineering; and Varada Kanchi, ’20 MS Electrical Engineering in the SJSU M-PAC lab.

Hiu-Yung Wong, assistant professor of electrical engineering at San José State University, has received a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award, a prestigious honor bestowed by the National Science Foundation. The award supports his research of cryogenic electronics—electrical systems that operate at extremely cold temperatures—as well as his project to expand education and research opportunities while building a diverse workforce in the field.

Wong is the first faculty member in more than 15 years in the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering to receive a CAREER award, which supports early-career faculty who show potential as leaders in both their academic and research roles and in advancing the mission of their department or organization.

Wong will receive about $500,000 over five years to implement his project, “Understanding and Modeling of Cryogenic Semiconductor Device Physics down to 4.2K.” While scientists understand the physics of electronics and their surroundings at room temperature, they still don’t fully grasp what happens at extremely cold, cryogenic temperatures, Wong explained.

He wants to close that knowledge gap, which could pave the way for the large-scale realization of quantum computers—as well as interstellar voyages. “Cryogenic-integrated circuits (ICs) are the natural candidate for the exploration of deep space, in which the temperature can drop below 4.2K,” Wong noted. (That’s equivalent to minus 452° Fahrenheit.)

In addition to the research, Wong wants to expand access to cryogenic electronics education, which is not as prevalent in electrical engineering programs today.

He’ll use the funding to develop two courses at San José State focused on cryogenic electronics that will be part of a specialization in the Electrical Engineering master’s program and create hands-on research opportunities for undergraduates.

Ultimately, Wong wants to build a future workforce in the field in a way that promotes diversity and uplifts underserved populations. For example, he plans to introduce a new session on cryogenics and quantum computing at the Silicon Valley Women in Engineering Conference, which connects female students—a minority in engineering programs—with women engineering professionals.

He will also develop a free summer course on cryogenics that will be geared towards socially and economically disadvantaged high school students.

“The goal is to build a pipeline of future students in quantum computing to create a diverse workforce and become an economic driver for vulnerable communities,” he said.

“We are so proud of Hiu-Yung’s achievements,” said Sheryl Ehrman, the Don Beall Dean of the College of Engineering. “He joined our college in 2018 with 12 years of industry experience, and he is a proud graduate from the Engineering Grants Academy program. This is our first home-grown CAREER award since the early 2000s.”

Wong said the award opens up several new research possibilities as well as collaboration opportunities with quantum computing companies.

“This award allows me to venture into more uncertain but also more rewarding research areas,” he added. “I particularly want to thank Dean Ehrman and Electrical Engineering Department Chair Thuy Le for creating a very supportive research environment.”

Spartan Speaker Series to Focus on Racism, Mental Health, Gender and More, Kicks Off Feb. 10

This semester, the San José State community can take a deep dive into topics such as racism, activism, mental health, gender and identity. The Spring 2021 Spartan Speaker Series at SJSU kicks off virtually on Wednesday, Feb. 10, with comedian, host and producer Baratunde Thurston. The entire series is free and open to the public.

Baratunde Thurston
Deconstructing Racism with Baratunde Thurston

Thurston will give his talk, “How to Deconstruct Racism and Laugh at the Same Time,” at 7 p.m. via Zoom. An Emmy-nominated host who has worked for The Onion, produced for The Daily Show and even advised the Obama White House, Thurston is the author of the New York Times bestseller “How to Be Black.” He’s also the executive producer and host of “We’re Having a Moment”—a podcast examining the intersection of the global pandemic, the fight for racial justice and the spotlight on policing in the U.S—as well as “How to Citizen with Baratunde,” which offers different perspectives on how to improve society collectively.

Student Affairs, who produces the series in collaboration with the César E. Chávez Community Action Center (CCCAC), received requests for speakers focusing on racial justice, journalism and the media. “Baratunde Thurston is a wonderful choice to represent these topics,” says Adrienne Jensen-Doray, assistant director of Student Involvement. “He addresses the social and political landscape in the U.S., as well as trauma and healing. He also provides perspectives on life as an entrepreneur and a podcaster—two topics of interest to many of our students.”

When planning the series as a whole, Jensen-Doray says themes such as “racial justice and mental health and wellness were critical, given the needs and interest of our students and current events. We also considered heritage months, such as Black History Month, Women Herstory Month and Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month.”

Thurston will conclude his presentation with a Q&A.

Alok Menon

Exploring Gender and Identity with ALOK

Later in the month, Alok Vaid-Menon (ALOK) will serve as the keynote speaker for the 15th anniversary of the CCCAC. In “Beyond the Binary,” on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m., ALOK, a gender non-conforming writer, performance artist and mixed-media artist, will explore themes of gender, race, trauma and belonging. They are the author of “Femme in Public” and “Beyond the Gender Binary.” In 2019, they were honored as one of NBC’s Pride 50 and Out Magazine’s OUT 100.

Since its inception in 2006, the CCCAC has sought to connect SJSU students with civic engagement opportunities that deepen educational experience while promoting a lifelong commitment to activism and social justice, which are at the heart of the legacy of César Chávez.

“As we move into thinking about the next 15 years for the CCCAC and the world, it’s important we bring a keynote speaker that represents a community not often given the platform to influence the next generation of social justice leaders,” explains Diana Victa, department manager of the CCCAC. “ALOK is the best fit because of their leadership in spreading awareness of gender identities, specifically gender non-conforming folx.”

Thea Monyee

Bridging Mental Health and Activism with Thea Monyee

The CCCAC will also present the “A Conversation with Thea Monyee: Sustaining Joy in the Midst of Social Change: Bridging Mental Health and Activism,” on Tuesday, March 2, at 3 p.m. Monyee, a poet and marriage and family therapist, self identifies as a “Black Woman Creative.” She has appeared on HBO, BET, Spectrum, OWN, Fox Soul and TV One, and her work stems from her commitment to healing, which she believes can only occur in a liberated and non-oppressive society.

“It was very important to us to address mental health this semester,” says Jensen-Doray. “Monyee does this through an activist lens, which we hope will resonate with students.”

Simon Tam

Making Trouble with Simon Tam

Finally, the series will conclude on Wednesday, April 14, at 7 p.m. with a talk by Simon Tam. In “Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court,” Tam will share how he helped expand civil liberties for minorities through the unanimous victory of the U.S. Supreme Court case, Matal v. Tam, in 2017. “He offers a unique perspective on identity and justice, as well as the intersection of arts and activism,” says Jensen-Doray.

Tam is the founder and bassist of The Slants, an all-Asian American dance rock band. He also leads the nonprofit The Slants Foundation, which supports arts and activism projects for underrepresented communities. Tam’s talk will include a musical performance, and he will take questions from participants after his talk.


Attendees of any of the talks should register ahead of time in order to receive a Zoom link.

“I hope those who attend multiple events in this series notice the commonalities and prevalence of specific advice—whether it is about forging your own path, building resilience or mentorship and the role mentors have played in our speakers’ lives,” says Jensen-Doray.

She also adds that Student Involvement seeks input from SJSU students, faculty and staff to identify pertinent themes and speakers-of-interest for the 2021-2022 series. Those interested can provide feedback here.