Location, extent of coral reefs mapped worldwide using advanced AI

ASU researchers' methodology predicts location of shallow coral reefs with nearly 90% accuracy


October 27, 2020

Nearly 75% of the world’s coral reefs are under threat from global stressors such as climate change and local stressors such as overfishing and coastal development. Those working to understand and protect coral reefs are building the know-how to mitigate the damage, but doing so requires first knowing where reefs are located. 

Many approaches, such as diver-based observation and satellite imagery, have been used to estimate the distribution of coral reefs around the world, but past approaches have led to inconsistent accuracy because the underlying data are derived from disparate sources and varying methodologies. allen coral atlas Visual comparisons of a map by the United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the leading global coral reef map, and the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science coral reef extent map in different regions, including (a) Great Barrier Reef, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia; (b) Madagascar, East Africa; (c) Red Sea, Samoa, Virgin Islands. Download Full Image

Now, researchers from the Arizona State University Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science have generated a global coral reef extent map using a single methodology capable of predicting the location of shallow coral reefs with nearly 90% accuracy. The study was published in the journal, Coral Reefs.

The team used convolutional neural networks, an advanced artificial intelligence approach, along with thousands of satellite images from Planet Inc. to create the new global map. Planet Inc.’s satellites obtain daily coverage of the Earth’s landmass and its coral reefs at a 3.7-meter resolution. Many of these satellites are as small as a loaf of bread but, operating together, they collect over 11 terabytes of data every day.

This continuous stream of imagery yields a massive amount of data — too much for even a large team of scientists to manually sort through. Using convolutional neural networks and ASU’s supercomputer, the team was able to analyze the data and extract the locations of shallow reefs less than 20 meters (70 feet) of water depth worldwide. 

The maps are openly available through the Allen Coral Atlas, a collaborative partnership between ASU, Vulcan Inc., Planet Inc., University of Queensland and National Geographic Society to map and monitor the world’s coral reefs in unprecedented detail. 

“The new map represents our best estimate of the location of shallow coral reefs on the planet, and it guides next steps including our ongoing collaboration to map the composition of these reefs and their changing health over time,” said first author Jiwei Li of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

The researchers indicated that these new maps can be used with other global maps or datasets to create derived data or analytic products. Some immediate uses of the map at the Allen Coral Atlas include determining where to monitor for coral bleaching, a global phenomenon driven by ocean warming.   

“This first-ever A.I.-driven map of the world’s coral reefs is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we have coming out over the next year and beyond," said Greg Asner, co-author of the study and ASU’s Allen Coral Atlas lead. "The partnership is already rolling out much more detailed reef composition maps on a region-by-region basis, and we are preparing to launch a global reef monitoring system that detects bleaching. These and other large-scale marine technology innovations are already helping conservation, management and resource policy specialists make decisions. That’s our big picture goal.”

Heather D'Angelo

Communications director, Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

How studying abroad shaped the life of award-winning ASU teacher from Turkey


October 27, 2020

October 26–29 is Virtual Study Abroad Week at Arizona State University, and instructor Emel Topal has been thinking a lot these days about international and U.S. students whose plans to study out-of-country are on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Topal, who was honored in September with a College of Integrative Sciences and Arts’ Outstanding Teaching Award for 2019–2020, said the recognition has inspired reflection about how she came to be a college teacher, her serendipitous path to the U.S. and ASU, and how those decisions and experiences — especially studying abroad — have shaped her life.    ASU Polytechnic campus faculty member Emel Topal pointing out a brain structure with model human skeleton in backdrop ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts faculty member Emel Topal leading an anatomy workshop for East Valley Girl Scouts in fall 2019 at ASU Polytechnic campus. Photo by ASU interdisciplinary studies major Taylor Kephart. Download Full Image

“My own story, I think, is one that can be encouraging to students, to give them hope and to try their best, even though they may need some patience at this time,” said Topal, who is from Turkey and came to the United States in 2003 after earning her master’s degree.

What decisions led her to Arizona and ASU’s Polytechnic campus?  

Immersed in the teaching life

Topal knew early on in life that biology, teaching and a career in academia were for her.

“My parents were teachers and always worked in underserved areas, so that’s where we also lived. With no TV, electricity or running water, I was always outdoors, exploring nature and digging into ant communities, making posters about the ant life cycle for fun,” she recalled. 

“I also saw from my mother, especially, how one teacher could make a huge difference in people’s lives. At one point we were in a rural area of Turkey where girls didn’t go to school,” Topal said. “She started an evening program to teach women and girls of all ages who didn’t know how to read and write.

“I was 6 or 7 at that time. I remember going door to door with her as she explained the program to parents and husbands and have fond memories of doing my homework with my mom teaching in the background, and sometimes reading with her students,” she continued. “We learned together, and the ladies were so loving and affectionate. It was amazing to me that my mom did that and it sparked an interest in me.” 

With that background, it wasn’t a surprise to her family when Topal chose to study biology at Istanbul University with an eye toward teaching. Along the way she decided that teaching at the college level would be best, so she completed a master’s degree in biology at Abant Izzet Baysal University and applied to their doctoral program.

“But I had found it was very hard for me to write my master’s thesis,” Topal explained, “because I was translating word by word research articles written in English. So I decided after defending my thesis to defer my doctoral admission and put focus on learning English.” 

Though she looked first for resources and opportunities in England to be closer to home, she happened upon the exciting work of pioneering researcher Charles Arntzen, who had joined ASU in 2001 as founding director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

“His focus on infectious diseases and making edible, plant-based vaccines, connected strongly with the ideals I grew up with, and offered great potential for overcoming health barriers in the development world," Topal said.

She wrote him a letter, saying she would like to learn English at the university and volunteer in his lab.

Arntzen responded, suggesting she might have more hands-on lab opportunities at that time working with his research colleague Hugh Mason, still at Cornell University, and made that introduction.   

“I was getting ready to enroll in classes at Cornell, when Dr. Mason decided to join ASU,” said Topal, who changed her plans accordingly and came to Arizona.

Finding her place

“If you’ve seen the film ‘The Terminal’ with Tom Hanks, that was me when I arrived in the U.S.,” laughed Topal. “I couldn’t answer questions in basic conversation.”

But after a few weeks of English classes and observing in the lab, she was hired on as a student worker.

“They were just beginning to set up the lab and had no technician at the beginning for a short time. I cleaned equipment, prepared media, and ordered supplies. When classes finished I’d go and stay until late, trying to make sense of everything,” she said. “I really appreciated that Dr. Mason gave me that opportunity.”

As the end of her six months of ESL classes approached, she met with Mason to let him know she would be returning to Turkey in a month or so.

“He told me that he actually had some news to talk with me about — he said he’d gotten a grant on which I could contribute and receive funding: Would I consider staying and doing my PhD at ASU instead?

“I liked the lab and the research, so I was ecstatic!” she recalled.

The next step was convincing her parents.

“I traveled home to talk to them in person, after I’d already taken the GRE and TOEFL and had been accepted for admission!” she emphasized. “They didn’t like that I’d be so far away, but they understood the benefits — I’d gotten a scholarship and would be working on vaccines in a world-famous lab. They were happy for me, but sad I’d be gone so long.”

Topal, who married during the last year of her doctoral work, wrote her thesis soon after their first child was born. Her dissertation described her research in creating an effective vaccine for preventing Escherichia coli O157:H7 intestinal attachment and colonization, the primary cause of acute renal failure in children, and she shared her results in a variety of journals and conferences.  

Emel Topal working with Girl Scout and parent in ASU Polytechnic lab

Emel Topal often volunteers to lead workshops and activities to interest kids, especially girls, in science, as in this November 2019 workshop for East Valley Girl Scouts at ASU Polytechnic campus. Photo courtesy of ASU interdisciplinary studies major Taylor Kephart

In her element

After completing the degree in December 2010, she taught part-time at Chandler/Gilbert Community College for four years. After her second child was born, she returned to ASU in 2016 as an instructor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, where she teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology, Medicine and Culture, and occasionally microbiology labs. 

Whether teaching a class of 25 or 125, Topal said she loves getting to know her students.  

“I’m always encouraging them to come to office hours, and often students will stay after class an hour or more to chat. We have a lot of students from the Middle East earning degrees based at Poly, and they want to ask me about my immigrant experience and how I learned English.”

Many of her students are planning to go on to medical or dental school and Topal serves as faculty lead for the Pre-dental Club at ASU Polytechnic campus.

“They ask me for a lot of reference letters for graduate and professional schools,” Topal said. “I encourage them to talk with me a little each week, so I know what’s going on in their lives and will know them well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation. I’m happy to be part of their journey.”

It’s apparent from recent student evaluations that her emphasis on making personal connections with her students is something they appreciate and that contributes to student learning and affinity.

Here are some quotes from her students:

"Dr. Topal is not only very intelligent and knowledgeable in the subject matter and a great teacher, but she is also extremely kind, sweet (and sassy!), personable, funny, down-to-earth, enthusiastic, and just a fantastic professor to work with overall. Her willingness to slow down, reexplain concepts, ask for student feedback and take it into account, makes the experience even more effective and enjoyable … You can tell that she cares about each individual entrusted to her… Dr. Emel Topal is a much-appreciated gem at ASU!"

"I LOVE PROFESSOR TOPAL SO MUCH!! I honestly cannot say enough nice things about her… she is SO kind and caring. She truly wants her students to succeed and is so patient. She is so helpful and tries to make the class as doable as possible.

"Dr. Topal is one of the best professors that I have had at ASU. She really cares about her students and wants everyone to do well in the class. She is accessible outside of class and encourages students to seek help if needed. The course material was difficult as expected, but very interesting at the same time.” 

When Topal is not teaching at ASU, you’re likely to find her, well … teaching.

She volunteers in classrooms at her children’s elementary school, bringing in skeleton models and talking about human bones, as well as at Wesley Community and Health Center in Phoenix, which offers activities for kids ages 5 to 14. She also regularly leads workshops at ASU Polytechnic campus to encourage girls in science.  

Topal and her family normally visit Turkey each summer and during those visits she volunteers in the primary and middle school where her extended family lives. 

“My sister used to teach English in an American cultural center in Turkey, so she’d enlist me to come be a conversation partner and I’d bring my kids.”

Emel Topal, her son and daughter race with College of Integrative Sciences and Arts dean Duane Roen to assemble lab skeletons at 2019 ASU Open Door event

Emel Topal, with her son and daughter, race with College of Integrative Science and Arts dean Duane Roen to assemble lab skeletons as part of the ASU Open Door at Polytechnic campus in 2019. Topal makes it a point to include her children in her volunteer STEM activities. Photo courtesy of Emal Topal.

Connecting to other cultures 

Her advice to students who yearn to travel and study in other countries but can’t just yet?

“Be open to learning about different cultures and languages from where you are. Search out student clubs. Consider being a nanny for a family from another culture,” Topal said. “Even spending a short amount of time visiting another country virtually on YouTube, you quickly realize that not everyone looks at the same issue through one window.

“You’ll take something from that culture and synthesize it and give you a different perspective. That’s how you grow. When you get out of your comfort zone, whether it’s something little or big – it’ll definitely give you a chance for growth.”

Maureen Roen

Manager, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts

602-496-1454