Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Interview with Jessica Schmidt

Do you know what a Tsunami is? Some people call it a tidal wave. It is usually created by an earthquake or avalanche of rock under an ocean's waters. Displacement of water creates the wave that is nearly undedectible until it reaches shore with devastating results. Just a couple weeks ago a Tsunami struck the Samoa islands in the Pacific with fatal results. What warnings are there to indicate that a Tsunami is approaching? Sometimes there is a drawback in which the water along shore is sucked out into the ocean, exposing the bottom for hundreds of yards. A drawback only gives a person a matter of minutes to run for higher ground before the Tsunami hits. Other warning systems involve ocean buoys that try to detect changes in pressure along the ocean floor, but this warning system isn't always sufficient.

Did you know that someone from our community, someone that went to school here at CLMS a few years ago, is currently working on solving the problems with detecting Tsunamis in order to save more lives in the future?

I would like to introduce you to Jessica Schmidt. She also goes by the first name of Jecca. Jecca attended CLMS from 1999-2002. (She probably would prefer you didn't do the math to find out how old she is now.) I wanted you to know about Jessica, not only because she is a good example to follow, but also because of the important work she is doing. Jessica's work and research has taken her around the world as the picture below illustrates. I also wanted you to know what she is doing because the subject of her research plays such a prominent role in one of this year's featured books on BC Booktalk called, Night of the Howling Dogs, by Graham Salisbury.

1. Jessica, can you tell a little about yourself and your years at Chisago Lakes Middle School? What were your interests?

When I was in middle school, to put it bluntly, I was a very shy nerd. I loved school and my classes, but it was a rare occasion when I would speak during class discussions. I played clarinet in the band for my three years there. During 7th and 8th grade, I participated in math league and math counts, and in 8th grade I played softball and basketball. Outside of school, my favorite activity was reading and trying to learn as much as possible. At that point in my life, U.S. history really fascinated me, and after September 11th occurred, current events grabbed my attention as well. Prior to that tragic incident, as Mrs. Guanzini would put it, I “lived in a cave.”

2. Where did you go to college and how did you choose what you wanted to major in?

I went to the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN. Before going there, I was uncertain in what I wanted to major in – I think I changed my major about three times before classes even started. However, I knew that I enjoyed math and I did not want to lose the math skills I acquired in high school. The only thing keeping me away from a math major was a programming class – which really frightened me since I had not knowledge of the subject. Eventually, I registered for the programming course because I didn’t know what else to take, and it was on the math major course schema. This was a good choice because after beginning the course, I found it to be enjoyable, and it caused me to double major in math and computer science. Recently, I left St. Scholastica to attend the University of Colorado where I am focusing on applied mathematics.

3. How did you get involved in the research behind detecting seismic tsunamis? What is the goal of your work?

I first got started in doing research relating to tsunami detection during the summer of 2008, while I was at the University of Minnesota on an internship. My advisor asked me to try to speed up my research team’s current tsunami simulation using the graphics card of a computer. A tsunami simulation is a computer program displays where a tsunami will go and how large it will take to arrive at shore. As we recently witnessed in the Samoa Islands, it has been difficult to create an efficient tsunami warning system that adequately warns those in the path of a tsunami of its coming. You may see the following video that was captured by an FBI surveillance camera in the Samoa Islands as proof that they did not receive much warning:

Go to the following URL:

Therefore, since we cannot predict when a tsunami will occur, after its formation, we want to minimize the amount of time it takes to estimate where and when it will arrive at shore.

4. Why is your work in detecting seismic tsunamis important? What are some of the challenges you and your colleagues face?

This work is important because currently an efficient tsunami warning system is not in place. Looking at the recent past, we see that one of the most deadly tsunamis in history occurred on December 26, 2004 in Sumatra (see figure 1). Yet, we are living in an age in which we have quite sophisticated technology, still we are unable to determine in a timely fashion when a tsunami will arrive on shore. It is not that this problem has been overlooked, but rather the problem is so complex that it takes a lot of computational power. This means it could take hours to compute the track of a tsunami through the ocean, at which point it may be too late. Therefore, it is vital that the amount of time it takes to run the codes is decreased in order that another disaster, like the Sumatra tsunami of 2004, does not happen again, in order that other people’s lives may be spared. The question then becomes not how to forecast how a tsunami propagates (travels through the ocean), but rather how to speed up the simulations.

Figure 1: Historically Deadly Tsunamis

The challenge lies in solving the wave equations, since a tsunami is a wave. In its most basic form, this is a very common type of problem. However, the challenge soon escalates once we realize that the boundaries (shorelines and sea floor) of the ocean are quite complex. They are jagged and constantly changing, but is vital to determining the propagation of a tsunami. Moreover, there are different forms of the wave equation, some of which are easier to solve than others. For example, solving the linear wave equations does not take as much computational power as solving the non-linear equations. Yet, the results of the non-linear equations are more accurate than the linear ones. Additionally, we can add more details to the problem, these details are known as parameters and they help to make the wave model more realistic, but they also contribute the difficulty of the problem and increases the computational time it takes to solve the problem. Therefore, an accurate model may take considerably longer than a less accurate model – so we need to find a balance between accurate results and computational time.

5. Where do you see your work with this area taking you in the future?

I want to get my Ph.D. in applied math, with a focus on a numerical scheme called radial basis functions (RBFs). Whether I end up applying RBFs to tsunamis or something else, I am unsure at the moment. However, I think that I would like to develop a fast and accurate algorithm using RBFs for the solution of the wave equation and figure out how it can be implemented along the rugged coastline in order to give accurate results. Currently, I am looking at detecting tsunamis in the upper layer of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere. This is because as a tsunami is propagating in the open ocean, it displaces a small amount of water, perhaps just a few centimeters. However, this wave is greatly magnified in the ionosphere, and has a distinct look, which can be picked up by GPS satellites. This method could then be another way to detect a tsunami.

6. As far as you know, were the earthquakes that led to the tsunamis that recently hit Indonesia and Samoa detected before reaching the islands? Was there any warning?

There was some sort of warning because I remember reading on a news website an article about how a large earthquake had occurred and the islands in the Pacific were told to be on alert. However, whether it was issued for all countries that could possibly have been hit or those actually affected, I am uncertain. I know Hawaii was told to watch out for it, and they breathed a sigh of relief when it missed them, but I do not know whether the countries affected by the tsunami were given any advanced notice. Moreover, many times, the places affected are remote villages on the coastline, and it is difficult to relay information to them. What usually happens after a significant earthquake occurs is that a message is relayed to coastal countries that may or may not be affected by a potential tsunami. Many times these warnings turn out to be false, as a tsunami was not generated. The question then becomes, is it better to issue a false warning or no warning at all? I think everyone would rather be safe than sorry.

7. What advice would you give to CLMS students that are interested in Math/Science or careers involving Math/Science?

Join math league! Honestly, that activity gave me some of my fondest middle school memories. It is a no pressure environment, and you get FREE COOKIES before each meet! I believe that you have many other opportunities available to you as well such as robot club (???-Mr. Schoeneck, I think you know what group I’m trying to reference here), quiz bowl, etc. – so join those activities in order to facilitate your learning. More than anything, become involved in the different activities offered. Then, as your schooling progresses, take as many math and science classes as possible. Not only does it allow you to see what you like/dislike, it also gives you a better understanding of each subject since sooner or later they all become intertwined. Also, working in groups is a great skill to have – rarely is work completed by a single person anymore, but rather a group of collaborators.

8. Do you have any other advice or comments to pass on to our 6th graders?

My #1 advice for you is to HAVE FUN! Enjoy life. Look for the good in everything you do – but be aware that it may take a few years until you see it. Do not be afraid to ask questions - your teachers are there to foster your learning, and there is NO such thing as a dumb question. Also, try to cut back your time watching television – it is much more fun to live your own life than to watch others live theirs. Finally, if you have not already done so, read and/or watch “The Last Lecture” by Dr. Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon Univ. If I say anything else, I would just be mimicking him….he gives the best advice – my favorite being “You just have to decide if you’re a Tigger or you’re an Eeyore!” Well, enjoy your time at CLMS – it goes by much too quickly and I wish you all the best of luck for the remaining of the school year!


Thanks Jessica. We wish you well and hope for tremendous progress in the work towards detecting Tsunamis.


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