Age: 18New York, NY
Project Title: Modeling the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of Phytophthora infestans at a Regional Scale
Potato late blight – the cause of the Irish Potato Famine – is still a devastating pathogen, which costs world agriculture billions of dollars in crop damages every year. There are no methods to rehabilitate infected fields, which can be decimated by this pathogen in a matter of days. Late blight is carried by spores in the wind, and farmers lack reliable means to determine their risks of infection. The only defense is to douse fields with fungicide preemptively at regular intervals throughout the season – an environmentally damaging, inadequate, and costly method of control. However, with predictive knowledge of when and how a field be infected, farmers can properly protect their fields with targeted fungicides, judiciously sprayed at the optimal times to kill expected infectious strains. I created a mathematical model that predicts when individual fields are at risk of infection, and which nearby strains will be the likely source. This information answers the questions of when and how specific fields will be at risk for infection. To validate my model, I also developed a statistical method to assess models that use “presence-only” data—that is data showing where the disease is, but no information on where it is not. This method showed that my model performed with high levels of accuracy in predicting high- and low- risk regions. My model can could be used to power a Decision Support System (DSS), whereby regional farmers could work together to share infection data, enabling the model to more accurately predict the spread of blight strains across the region.
Benjamin Firester (“Benjy”) is a rising senior at Hunter College High School in New York City. Benjy is excited and honored to be a Davidson Fellow, an award that validates over two years of his research and which will help fund his college tuition. He looks forward to meeting the other Fellows and representatives of the Davidson Institute in September and joining the Davidson community.
Benjy developed an explanatory and predictive mathematical model for the spread of Potato Late Blight, a devastating, global pathogen, which destroys billions of dollars of food crops annually. He worked with data collected at the Agricultural Research Organization in Volcani Center, Israel, and presented his findings and model to local potato growers. This model can potentially prevent the spread of the disease and facilitate the reduced use of fungicides, saving money and the environment, and potentially improving agriculture and health around the world. Building the model required an interdisciplinary approach, combining the biology of blight reproduction and transmission, as well as the mathematics of graph theory and path-based probabilities.
When he started this project, Benjy was looking for an opportunity to apply his skills in math and computer science to translating natural processes like disease spread into computational models. In order to apply the power of mathematical and computational algorithms to epidemiology, researchers must translate the natural world into numerical models. This is a complex and monumental task, which raises critical questions about analyzing ecological data and using it in mathematical predictions. Benjy was fascinated by the questions and challenge that occur in this interface between the natural and the computational. Computer models that resemble nature in more accurate ways could enable important advances in health, medicine, and agriculture. When Benjy presented the model to growers in the Israeli fields where the data was collected, they were thrilled and hopeful that the model and its mechanisms could be employed by communities of growers to avert potato late blight and/or arrest the damages inflicted by it.
Benjy has always loved math, and spends much of his free time solving math, logic, and other puzzles, including a collection of Rubik’s cube and other “twisty” puzzles, as well as algorithm puzzles online at projecteuler.net. He is on his high school’s and New York City’s math teams, and has taught himself additional math beyond the school curriculum since early childhood. Having completed a rich and accelerated curriculum of math and computer science at his school, Benjy will take math and computer science courses at Hunter College in New York City in his high school Senior year. In college, starting in 2018, Benjy plans to major in math and to explore other disciplines.
Benjy presented his research (multiple projects) in several science competitions, and won two international Third Grand Awards from Intel ISEF, three First Awards from the NYCSEF (New York Science & Engineering Fair), as well as specialized awards in Engineering and Sustainable Solutions. He competed in the American Invitational Mathematics Exams (AIME) and nationally with Hunter’s robotics team, the RoHawks. The scientific paper he wrote on his blight modelling project was presented at the international EuroBlight Workshop in Denmark, and he presented his work at the 2017 World Science Festival on behalf of ISEF and the Society for Science & the Public. This year, Benjy also won a national Scholastic Art & Writing medal for his critical economics essay about the genesis of the American mail-order model. Benjy is also a volunteer calculus and physics tutor at Hunter College High School. Alongside his love for math, Benjy loves music and has been studying classical piano and music theory at Mannes College the New School for Music since he was four years old. He enjoys playing chamber music, and has performed at Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center. Music theory is where his mathematical side interfaces with his music studies.
If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
Alan Turing; Rosalind Franklin; Sergei Rachmaninoff; David Ricardo; Mark Hamill
If you had a warning label, what would yours say?
Warning: will make lots of bad jokes, especially Star Wars related.
What is one of your favorite quotes?
“Do or do not. There is no try” -Yoda
In the News9/12/17 - The Society For Science & The Public: Ten Tips From Davidson Fellows on How to Be Successful in STEM
NEW YORK TEEN AWARDED $25,000 FOR MODEL PREDICTING POTATO LATE BLIGHT
Benjamin “Benjy” Firester Named a 2017 Davidson Fellow
Click here to download the full press release
Click the links below to see hi-res photos of Benjy:
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