WSU researcher awarded fellowship in robotics

Closeup of Kyle Yoshida with the rolling hills of the Palouse in the distance.
Kyle Yoshida

Kyle Yoshida, a postdoctoral researcher in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has received a Washington Research Foundation fellowship to study human-robot interactions and agricultural robotics — work that he hopes to bring someday to his home in Hawaii.

The foundation, which supports groundbreaking research and early-stage technology companies, annually provides three-year fellowships to about 10 Washington postdoctoral researchers for work with potential for real-world impact.

Yoshida, this year’s only WSU fellowship recipient, is interested in developing better agricultural solutions for Hawaii. He is working in the lab of Ming Luo, Flaherty Assistant Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who conducts research on autonomous robotic systems.

Hawaii relies almost entirely on tourism for its economy and imports most of its food, which makes it expensive and carbon intensive.

“With the cost of labor, there’s pretty much no more agriculture,” said Yoshida. “Reigniting our agriculture industry would be a huge thing.”

Being able to grow food in Hawaii would provide the opportunity for people to improve their health with better food as well as to diversify the economy, he said. Yoshida hopes that robotics might provide solutions to agricultural challenges.

“Allowing people who live there to actually go back to farming, become more sustainable, and lower emissions from reduced imports would have a multiplicative effect,” he said.

Yoshida got his undergraduate degree at Harvard, where at the time he was thought to be the first student to receive a bioengineering degree with a minor in African studies. He found similar themes with the African diaspora as with the Hawaiian experience. More native Hawaiians now live outside Hawaii than live there. After graduating from Harvard, he went on for a PhD at Stanford University in mechanical engineering before joining WSU in January.

While he conducts his own research, Yoshida is also working to bring others together from the Hawaiian community to develop ideas and solutions.

In recent years, he started Honua Scholars, a non-profit organization that aims to provide mentorship in science and technology for Hawaiians or for those who are underrepresented in those fields of study. Honua, which means Earth in Hawaiian, offers a symposium and funding for student project proposals, including those written in Pacific Islander languages.

The programs aim to increase retention of students in science and technology fields while helping them integrate Hawaii’s culture into their scientific endeavors. 

“A lot of times, our experiences shape the research, and the linguistics shape the thoughts and ideas that occur,” he said. “We’re hoping that these different perspectives can bring another wave of innovation.”

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