An 18-year-old teenager has devised a means through which the spread of late potato blight can be predicted. This blight caused the failed potato crops in 1840s Ireland.
An 18-year-old high school student from New York has taken home the top prize in the Regeneron Science Talent Search for his impressive work in predicting the spread of the blight responsible for the Irish potato famine, during which a million people died and a further million emigrated from Ireland.
Benjamin "Benjy" Firester, who attends Hunter College High School, beat off 1,800 students to claim the $250,000 first-place prize after developing a computer model which can help in predicted the spread of the devastating microorganism.
Although the late potato blight may not have such tragic effects on the world now as it did in 1840s Ireland, it is estimated that it is responsible for an annual yield loss of up to $6.7 billion.
With the luck of the #Irish on his side, NYC’s Benjamin Firester is awarded the top prize at the 2018 #RegeneronSTS. His research analyzed disease data and weather patterns to help track the microorganism that caused the Irish Potato Famine. https://t.co/Lw9Vg9aDSP— Regeneron (@regeneron) March 14, 2018
Entitled "Modeling the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of Phytophthora infestans on a Regional Scale," Firester's project examined data from Israeli farmers, as well as regional weather reports to map the spread of the disease with the aim of predicting where it will spread to next. Up until this point, Firester explained that farmers were forced to preemptively use a fungicide in fields with no way of saying whether the blight would spread in any given direction.
The teenager’s mathematical model, however, may now allow farmers to make more informed decisions about their crops and the impact that blight could have on them.
"Benjy's project melds several different STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields," said Sudarshan Chawathe, chair of the judging panel.
"His use of existing data to make predictions is innovative, and we are impressed by Benjy's long-term commitment to his research."
.@regeneron #pharmaceuticals & the @Society4Science announced that 18 year old Benjamin "Benjy" Firester won the top #award in the @regeneron #Science #Talent Search 2018, the nation's most prestigious #science & #math competition for #highschool seniors. https://t.co/gGOGiXpptx pic.twitter.com/NyWpUgld6D— American Entrepreneurship Today (@AmeriEntre_ship) March 14, 2018
Firester has now placed himself among a lineup of prestigious winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, including his own sister, who was a runner-up in 2015, and 13 winners who went on to be Nobel Prize Laureates.
"To be completely honest I didn't even think it was real at first," he said.
"I could barely breathe; my heart was beating so quickly. It just seemed like a dream."
There is some debate among Irish people and the descendants of Irish immigrants, as to what was the real cause of the massive death rate during the Irish potato famine, with some arguing that the English government and their failure to act to save the Irish people were the real cause of such widespread hunger.
Calling the Brits a “devastating microorganism” is a little weird, but I’ll take it. https://t.co/RrzP2KTwWR— Ailín 🌾⚙️ (@lukacsleninist) March 14, 2018
Nonetheless, Firester's contribution to the future of potato farming in phenomenal.