News Release

Computer Science Student Leader Wins UC San Diego Sustainability Award for His Work to Combat Ocean Pollution

San Diego, Calif., June 19, 2018 -- While on a trip with UC San Diego oceanographers to collect aerial imagery of local ecosystems in Baja, California, Engineers for Exploration student leader Nikko Dutra Bouck discovered massive amounts of trash covering mangrove ecosystems and contributing to ocean pollution. Dismayed at what he saw, Dutra developed a solution to the problem that could keep 50-80% of the trash out of the ocean. For all his hard work in improving sustainability, he has received the 2018 UC San Diego Sustainability Outstanding Student Award.

Engineers for Exploration gives students the opportunity to develop and use technology to drive the future of exploration. Teams of students work both in the United States and abroad with a wide range of partners. The program is led by computer science professor Ryan Kastner, electrical and computer engineering teaching professor Curt Schurgers and UC San Diego alumnus Albert Lin. Dutra is majoring in computer science. 


Engineers for Exploration student leader
Nikko Dutra Bouck

Much of the pollution that Dutra saw during his trip is the result of illegal dumping. Because garbage collectors in Baja California are paid before trash is delivered to designated landfills, drivers are motivated to dump wherever it is convenient, leading to polluted ecosystems. To correct the problem, Dutra proposed a new system using drones and mobile technology that would incentivize proper trash disposal and facilitate monitoring of illegal dumping. His system, Operation Trash Route, creates jobs that pay drivers once trash is delivered to designated waste sites. The system also includes a high resolution aerial imagery labeling tool, developed in conjunction with Engineers for Exploration, that gives park rangers the power to stop illegal dumping and identify garbage sites that need to be cleaned up. It uses mobile device technology to engage communities, drones to track changes in ecosystems and scientific analysis to inform government programs. His idea was chosen as a National Geographic Chasing Genius Finalist, and a beta release of the tool used to track trash is publicly available so that everyone, not just scientists, can help label trash data.

Nikko Dutra Brouck in Baja California working on Operation Trash Route. This project addresses concerns with ocean population in Mexico, which primarily occurs because trash drivers are paid before they deliver trash, so trash often ends up getting thrown before the landfills.

Each year in celebration of Earth Month, UC San Diego’s Office of Sustainability honors UC San Diego faculty, students and staff who have made outstanding contributions to sustainability practices that help protect our planet. This year’s Sustainability Awards ceremony was held Thursday, May 17 at The Loft where Dutra was presented with the Outstanding Student Award in recognition of his dedication to developing sustainable technologies, businesses and environmental research over the last nine years. He was accepted to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2017 for using photobioreactors for his work with open ocean kelp farming and his educational game initiative Reef Jam, which was a finalist in the Hero X Big Ocean Button challenge. Reef Jam is focused on teaching youth about ocean pollution using mobile games that connect them to citizen science and research through an addictive game play experience.

To Dutra, sustainability is one of the most critical cornerstones to a healthy society.

“When I think about a business, cultural practices, or societal equilibrium, I typically ask myself how these activities will impact the world 10 years, 100 years, and 1000 years from now,” Dutra said. “Will the activities cause hardship for humanity? How will it affect the quality of life we experience as a species? How will it influence the empathy, compassion, and curiosity of humans?”

Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering