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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 30, 2003

UH student best of U.S. in engineering

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

The laser wasn't on so there was no danger to his eyes as Aaron Ohta bent close to where the beam would pass, inspecting a piece of equipment only an engineer would understand.

With that invisible light, a series of black boxes, prisms and multitudes of unfathomable additional gadgets, Ohta has been working to develop a communications system between submarines and airplanes to speed data flow and improve security.

It's just one of the many projects that has brought accolades to the University of Hawai'i engineering student who graduated this month as the top electrical engineering student in the nation.

Along with the Alton B. Zerby Award which puts him at the top nationally, the 22-year-old Ohta has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship — the first for a UH engineering student.

Aaron Ohta graduated this month as the top engineering student in the nation.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The NSF award provides $114,000 for three years of graduate work — on top of the $42,000 fellowship he'll receive from UCLA for his first year of graduate school next year, working with professor Ming Wu, one of the pioneers in a new area called nanotechnology. Essentially, Ohta hopes to miniaturize systems to the point where "you can achieve an entire chemical analyzing laboratory on a chip."

Many research teams are working on it, but Ohta hopes to perfect it first.

Ohta said the "micromouse" he built to navigate a maze in an annual college competition lured him into robotics.

"In the competition, if you hit a wall and you have to touch your mouse to correct it, that's a 30-second time penalty," he says. "We competed for three years and got fourth place two years and fifth place last year."

Ohta built his first satellite in three hours last summer as part of a student workshop in Colorado. The guts were a couple of batteries and a camera, insulated with hand-warmers against the bitter cold 20 miles up at the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

"They tracked it riding through the cowfields with GPS (global positioning system) in an SUV with an antenna," chuckles Ohta's mentor and advisor, Wayne Shiroma, associate professor of electrical engineering at UH.

Ohta has thrived under a new educational focus in the UH undergraduate engineering program.

"It's something we're trying out," said Shiroma. "The traditional lecture style doesn't work for this generation of students. They need that immediate feedback so they're involved in projects with no clearcut solution."

Perhaps the best known project of this type is the Cubesat, a satellite the size of a Beanie Baby box which has 60 undergraduates designing and testing it. Ohta, the Cubesat project director, has helped raise $90,000 to pay for the research. This summer, he will continue to oversee it for a launch early next year aboard a Russian rocket.

The newest project is the "Nanosat," a slightly bigger satellite UH students are scheduled to build, this one sponsored by the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Ohta and Blaine Murakami, a junior, wrote the grant, and UH became one of 13 universities to win the $100,000 award.

Ohta's involvement with science projects and rocket launches started when he was 5, shaking out Lego sets, ignoring the designs on the box and building his own creations.

By 10, he and his father, evolutionary geneticist Alan Ohta, an adjunct faculty member of Chaminade University, had built a rocket and taken up a position at Kapi'olani Park for launch. His mother, retired elementary school teacher Gayle Ohta, and older sister, Leigh, were there for support.

"It flew somewhere in the hundreds of feet," says Ohta. "I was interested in that from about age 4 when I heard about astronauts and wanted to be an astronaut. Then in kindergarten the Challenger blew up and I decided not to."

By his senior year at Kalani High School, he was one of 20 students selected statewide for the UH Regents Scholarship, a full four-year ride to UH that amounted to about $45,000.

Through his years at UH, Ohta has added to his portfolio 19 professional presentations; four international conferences; two national conferences; nine scholarly papers; and a 4.0 grade-point average.

Not to mention surfing the North Shore — something he and his father like to do together, although the elder Ohta now begs off the big waves. "My family tells me, 'Don't make work your entire life. You've got to have fun too,' " the younger Ohta said.

When Aaron was 10, he and his dad began training for the Honolulu Marathon and ran five or six together. "Of course he beat me after a while," said his father. "At first I was the one who waited for him, and after that he waited for me."