Profiles

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Never Stop Exploring

Highest peaks, hidden depths are no match for Corey Jaskolski and his imaging tech

Jeanne Nagle | Profiles | September 22, 2021

Pardon the academic pun, but it seems as if University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point alumnus Corey Jaskolski ’00 has been on quite an “honor roll” of late. Last year he was named the 2020 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year for his work designing and deploying imaging technologies that have advanced conservationist causes around the globe. His many stellar accomplishments, including his current endeavors in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI), are front and center once more as Jaskolski has garnered yet another prestigious honor—being named a 2021 UWSP Alumni Award winner.

“Even though it comes with fewer watches than the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award,” he jokes, “being named a UWSP Distinguished Alumnus is an incredible honor.”

All kidding aside, Jaskolski says that receiving the Alumni Association award is truly special because of what the university means to him, personally and professionally. A double-major in mathematics and physics at UWSP—who later earned his master’s in electrical engineering and computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Jaskolski thought he would end up working as an engineer at an aerospace company or maybe a tech giant such as Google. But a passionate flame for photography and videography was lit in him after he took an introductory photography class at Point. That moment would prove crucial to transforming his vocational objectives.

“UWSP definitely catalyzed my career path,” he affirms.

And what a career it has been thus far.

While still a graduate student at MIT, Jaskolski was part of the team that developed a pressure-tolerant lithium-polymer battery pack subsequently used by director James Cameron to film the Titanic wreck for the documentary “Ghosts of the Abyss.” Nestled inside a three-person submarine, Jaskolski got his first taste for big-time exploration when he descended more than 12,000 feet into the ocean’s briny depths to maneuver robots, powered by the battery pack, across the ship’s remains, weaving in and out of state rooms in the process.

His work on that project opened the door to him working on various projects with the National Geographic Society, at their invitation.

“When I joined National Geographic as director of technology, I think a big part of me hoped I could leverage that to become a National Geographic photographer,” he says. “Since I couldn’t hold a candle to many of the awesome photographers we had at National Geographic, my ‘in’ was being able to build a new camera technology that could take pictures or video in environments or ways that were impossible without the tech I was building.”

In 2002, Jaskolski founded an engineering company called Hydro Technologies, based in Denver. No doubt taking a cue from his Titanic adventures, he and his team set about designing and building advanced underwater camera and sensor systems that were subsequently used by clients that included NASA and various departments within the United States Navy.

“It was really the combination of my first expedition and starting my first company that made me realize there was a way to combine my passion for exploration and imaging with my technical skillset,” he says.

While serving as president of Hydro Technologies, Jaskolski was invited to become a National Geographic fellow. The Society grants fellowship status to individuals who exhibit leadership potential and the ability to develop projects and technologies beneficial to its mission. Drawing from both hemispheres of his brain, Jaskolski—along with his team at Hydro and various outside partners—created imaging technology that he was able to personally put to the test while scuba diving among icebergs in Antarctica; helicoptering over Mount Everest’s peaks to map its highest glacier; tracking poachers in a twin-seat aircraft flying over the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and swimming through underwater caves to scan the remains of victims of Mayan human sacrifice rituals.

Jaskolski continued working with National Geographic throughout his departure from Hydro Technologies in 2017 and a move back to Wisconsin with his wife, Ann. A year after his return, he co-founded Delafield-based Virtual Wonders, a multiplatform 3D media company.

Also that year, while on assignment for National Geographic in Indonesia, Jaskolski experienced an epiphany of sorts after using a scanning rig he’d devised to create three-dimensional images of the rare and nearly extinct Sumatran rhinoceros. He realized that by using incredibly realistic 3D models such as those he was making of the rhino, scientists could greatly reduce the number of data sets needed to train AI technology in image recognition and differentiation, thereby saving time and money.

“This is really the Achilles heel of AI,” he explains. “To train an AI to do something, we need so many examples that the human labor to produce these examples can often be more than the time an AI will save down the road.”

The breakthrough in Sumatra paved the way for Jaskolski to found Synthetaic, the synthetic data company he currently leads as CEO. The startup’s initial partners included Save the Elephants, which turned to AI in order to track animal populations and help deter poachers, and Michigan Medicine’s neurosurgery unit, which has used Synthetaic’s technology to better locate and identify various types of brain tumors. In May, the company contracted with a program within the U.S. Air Force to enhance the capabilities of AI technology for geospatial applications.

“One of the exploration projects we’re currently working on is using our Synthetaic toolset to build an AI that can automatically identify any species of fish in imagery and video,” says Jaskolski. “This is really cool because most ocean survey video never gets reviewed for all the species in it, even though this information would give us a much better understanding of the ocean biodiversity.”

The work he does and the adventurous life he leads are like a dream come true for Jaskolski. However, he admits that the continual travel involved can be something of a double-edged sword.

“The biggest advantage for me is the way that travel opens your eyes and takes you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “It’s hard to worry about most of the stuff that stresses you out when you are scuba diving with penguins in Antarctica, drinking tea with locals at the base of Everest or having a barbecue in the Jordanian desert. The biggest disadvantage is that home sort of becomes a basecamp instead of a proper home when the travel is at its most intense. For example, getting a dog has always been, unfortunately, only on the post-retirement list for me.”

He adds that he is extremely grateful that his wife has been able to work along with him on many of his expeditions, so they haven’t had to spend so much time apart.

Jaskolski also appreciates that his career has opened certain doors, affording him the opportunity to encourage and help cultivate future generations of explorers. He is a member of the board of the Milwaukee Public Museum, “a place where, as a kid, I could imagine myself as an explorer,” he notes.

“Things have come full circle, as I hope that I can help inspire other kids (and adults!) to take the road less traveled and follow their dreams.”

Apparently, he applies that same logic to his selection as a Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient.

“I am grateful for the chance to help inspire others around what you can do with a degree from UWSP!”

 

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