On May 1, 2021, I did a lot of things. Most of them involved staying home, logging in to Microsoft Teams for virtual school, and doing my homework. Little did I know that my life would change that very evening. I logged off from school and opened Outlook to check my email, and I saw it immediately: “Congratulations on your NASA virtual internship!”
For the next five months, I was immersed in the life of a scientist. The NASA SEES Internship pushed me to grow and improve my analytical thinking skills, from Ph.D.-level guest lectures to reading through several research papers to actually writing one myself.
At the beginning of the internship, around June 10, our group of SEES Interns in the Earth System Explorers program was split into smaller groups of 8. We had to create a research project that used the land cover or mosquito data from the GLOBE Observer Database. So, in one of our brainstorming meetings for our research project, I wanted to combine my interest in machine learning, specifically computer vision, with either land cover or mosquitos. Essentially, computer vision is a field of artificial intelligence that enables computers to interpret and analyze images and videos. After researching the latest image classification models like the vision transformer (ViT), I wanted to use AI to identify deadly mosquito larvae, mainly the Aedes and Culex genera, stopping mosquito-borne diseases from spreading before the mosquitos even mature.
Some of my teammates, picking up on my interest, wanted to help bring this idea to fruition. So, we set out a game plan. We realized that scientists had previously used convolutional neural networks (CNNs) to classify mosquitos, but not much had been done for larvae. We decided to compare four different machine learning models: a CNN, a ViT, and then two hybrid models, which were a combination of CNNs and ViTs. We collected thousands of images of mosquito larvae, annotated each one with the help of our mentors, and inputted them into each model, classifying each mosquito larva as Aedes, Culex, or neither. Given any mosquito larvae image, we found that the ConvNeXt, a combination of the CNN and ViT, had the best performance, potentially allowing for a cheap and accessible solution for mosquito larvae classification that can be integrated with current research in the field. After several grueling weeks, we finished our research paper and presented it at the SEES 2022 Science Symposium.
Two months later, I received an email from the American Geophysical Union. Curious, I opened it and read the subject line:
“On behalf of the AGU Fall Meeting Program Committee, I am pleased to inform you that the abstract listed below is accepted for presentation at the AGU Fall Meeting 2022, which will take place in Chicago, IL, and online everywhere from 12-16 December.
AGU (American Geophysical Union) Fall Meeting is the most influential event in the world dedicated to the advancement of Earth and space sciences.
“Every year, AGU Fall Meeting convenes >25,000 attendees from 100+ countries to share research and network. Researchers, scientists, educators, students, policymakers, enthusiasts, journalists, and communicators attend AGU Fall Meeting to better understand our planet and environment and our role in preserving its future.
Chicago is thrilled to welcome AGU Fall Meeting for the first time!”
I had completely forgotten our team had submitted our paper to the AGU Fall Meeting 2022. I sprinted down the stairs to tell my parents the news. They were ecstatic. From then on, my team and I worked on our poster and what we would present at the McCormick Place Convention Center to the leading experts in their fields.
When my dad and I reached Chicago for the conference, I was astounded at how many people there were and how big the hall was. 5 months ago, I could never have imagined traveling to Chicago to present my own research at a science conference. After meeting my teammate Austin VanLoon who had come from Florida, we set up our poster for the next day.
On the big day, we presented from 9 in the morning to noon, meeting several NASA scientists, geologists, astronomers, and fellow SEES interns. We also took pictures with our NASA SEES mentor, Dr. Rusty Low, and our program directors, Celena Miller and Margaret Baguio. It was great talking to them and presenting our research for some feedback. Those 3 hours flew by incredibly fast! Austin and I rotated shifts to explore all the other research lined up next to ours. The company exhibit, which was right next to the main hall, had the newest innovations and prototypes that NASA, Google, and several tech companies were working on. I also found our poster on the virtual displays where virtual attendees could view it. That moment was one of the proudest I’ve ever felt, seeing our team’s research viewed by thousands of people.
Aswin S. (center) and teammate Austin V. (right) presented their poster at AGU and met with scientist mentor Dr. Rusty Low, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.
Because our research was sponsored by the Bright StaRs or the Bright Students Training as Research Scientists program, we were invited to an exclusive luncheon with other high school students. I met several fellow interns who I’d only seen as a small icon on my computer screen a few months before. It was a really great experience, and I made several new friends and connections. Following the luncheon, my dad and I went downtown Chicago and explored the Chicago Cultural Center. A few hours later, we left for the airport to return home.
The NASA SEES Internship helped me become a better leader, a collaborator, and, most importantly, a better scientist. As I went through the rest of high school and my life, this was an incredible experience I will never forget.
About the author: Aswin S. is a high school student at Bellarmine College Preparatory in California. His virtual internship is part of a collaboration between the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and the NASA Texas Space Grant Consortium (TSGC) to extend the TSGC Summer Enhancement in Earth Science (SEES) internship for U.S. high school (http://www.tsgc.utexas.edu/sees-internship/). In this guest blog post, he shares his experience of attending the NASA SEES Internship program and presenting his Earth System Explorers research at AGU 2022 in Chicago, IL.