New York student Benjamin “Benjy” Firester has won one of the United States’ top young science prizes for his research on the devastating microorganism which caused the Irish Potato Famine, devising a computer model that could prevent it causing billions of dollars in lost crops every year.
The 18-year-old senior at Hunter College High School beat 1,800 students in the race to the $250,000 first prize at the Regeneron Science Talent Search, which counts 13 Nobel Prize-winners among its alumni.
Firester’s project, titled “Modeling the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of Phytophthora infestans on a Regional Scale,” mapped disease data and weather patterns to predict where spores that cause potato late blight would spread to next. The study involved Firester using data from Israeli farmers and weather reports of the region, factoring in humidity levels and wind direction.
Firester says in his project that farmers are currently forced to preemptively douse fields in fungicide, but he suggests his mathematical model could be used in a decision support system where farmers share infection data, enabling them to make more informed decisions to protect their crops.