Graduate Student Places 3rd in NASA Competition
Abdal Elhassani met with a lot of success this year pursuing his favorite pastime – solving problems for cash prizes. After his idea for NASA’s OpenNEX large collection of climate projection and Earth-observing data was one of four selected to win Phase I of the contest, the master’s student in management information systems (MS-MIT) at the IU South Bend Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics tackled Phase II of the challenge. He built a practical application for his idea that predicts how plant hardiness zones will be affected in future years with a changing climate. His efforts earned him a third place finish and a $10,000 prize.
With a short 30 days to build the application, Elhassani’s graduate coursework helped him make good decisions to minimize problems and streamline the process. “In my graduate classes,” Elhassani explained, “I learned that planning is very important, so you don’t encounter a lot of unexpected problems.”
In addition to the short turn-around time, Elhassani’s biggest challenges were to manage the large amounts of NASA climate data and to create on-line maps that load quickly for user convenience. Limiting the NASA data to minimum temperatures for the coldest months of the year—December and January–and using technology from Google and Bing maps, he overcame these challenges.
Opening his laptop computer, Elhassani demonstrated his application. A color-coded hardiness zone map of the United States opens. Choosing the abies balsamea—a balsam fir tree— the map shows where in the U.S. the plant grows in 2012. Users can select between four hardiness years: 2012, 2041, 2070 and 2099 and for any plant species on the national gardening plant database. Looking at the state of Kentucky, the map shows the balsam fir tree grows throughout the state in 2012; begins to recede in the southern-most regions in 2041; only grows in the northern-most regions in 2070, and no longer grows in Kentucky in 2099.
So how might Elhassani’s plant hardiness web application be useful? It can help farmers, city, state planners, and gardeners plan more accurately for crop production or preparation for droughts or plant migration events. “City planners in Kentucky may decide not plant the balsam fir in southern Kentucky in 2041,” Elhassani commented, “if they know in 2070 it would not be hardy in the region.” As he prepared to leave, he offered some good news, “It appears that the changing climate will not affect the areas where corn can grow in the United States through 2099.”
Not a person to rest on past laurels, Elhassani is on to solving a new challenge, and applying to graduate schools to pursue his Ph.D. degree.