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The experience of youth

High school junior contributes to ASU research lab with computer skills.
16-year-old has taught himself several coding, scripting languages.
January 11, 2017

ASU provides opportunity for self-taught, teenage computer whiz to join research projects on climate change

Matei Georgescu uses a lot of data in his research, studying how a changing landscape can affect local climate and resources. He looks at how land changes, from undeveloped to developed, affect climate and rainfall and runs simulations that make long-term projections with the goal of finding a more sustainable future.  

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is — and that’s where 16-year-old Vishesh Gupta comes in. The BASIS Scottsdale junior is a computer whiz and the rare example of a high school research assistant working in a top-tier lab.

“He is a junior in high school, and he has the technical abilities of a student who is entering grad school,” said Georgescu, an ASU associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Georgescu and Gupta’s pairing reflects an innovative solution from ASU that helps a gifted community member excel and succeed to the peak of his potential.

Gupta’s interest in computers began in fifth grade when he took online tutorials on computer science. That summer, on his own, he built a web page for his adventures on “Super Mario Galaxy 2.”

“At the time, I thought this could be a hobby,” Gupta said.

Each summer since, Gupta would teach himself a new coding trick. But then what?

“I had done all of this computer work over the summers, but there weren’t any practical uses for it,” he said. “I learned all of this stuff, and then I didn’t know what to do with it.”

'He's been eager to help'

Georgescu and Gupta first crossed paths in April.

Gupta was looking for something to do with his computer skills when his older brother suggested he apply to work in Bruce Rittmann's lab at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

Gupta was too young to work around chemicals, so Rittmann referred him to Georgescu, whose work uses ASU’s supercomputers to crunch data and make sense of disparate measurements.

For his part, Rittmann often welcomes high school students and teachers into in his lab to help and observe. He says the experience has propelled students.

“We have had several who have gone on to great success,” Rittmann said. “Our first intern was Smitha Ramakrishna, who eventually graduated from Harvard. Another early one was Emerson Reiter, who is a graduate of Stanford.”  

Still, heading into the first meeting, Georgescu needed to be convinced that hiring a high school student was a good idea.

“I sat down with him and asked a few questions about climate change and climate variability,” Georgescu said. “I knew when we talked that he was insightful. He was asking probing questions. He had good questions about climate and our dialogue was just that, a two-way conversation revolving around methods and techniques, applicability of computers to the field of climate modeling. I was hooked.

“Now we are planning for Vishesh to be with us through the upcoming spring semester,” he added.

Gupta works most closely with Scott Krayenhoff, a postdoctoral researcher who projects climate and hydrology outcomes using data models.

Krayenhoff needed somebody to analyze the figures before they’re put into a simulation.

“Vishesh’s ability with data processing and analysis has been a great asset in our work,” Krayenhoff said. “He’s been eager to help and a quick learner.”

The projects they are working on include the Urban Water Innovation Network, of which Georgescu is ASU’s principal investigator as part of a 16-institution network. Another focuses on improving emergency preparedness during extreme-heat events in a partnership with Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan.

“We are trying to enhance our understanding of the urban environment, with an emphasis on human health impacts, energy demand and socioeconomic groups and vulnerable populations,” Georgescu said.

Gupta has constructed a database of observed extreme-heat events for the nearly two dozen regions of focus over the U.S., ranking them based on intensity and longevity to guide the historical simulations conducted for a variety of cities. 

To do this, Gupta — without the security of a classroom setting — learned several new computer codes and software packages that analyze data types ranging from netCDF to binary. In months, Gupta taught himself GrADS, Python and R codes.

Sixteen-year-old Vishesh Gupta (front) poses in front of Phoenix climate data, with associate professor Matei Georgescu (left) and postdoctoral researcher Scott Krayenhoff. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

'This gives me a way to use it'

Georgescu now wants to recruit more high school students, saying they’re a valuable resource to tap. In return, he said, he can provide an enriching research experience.

“Vishesh is a 16-year-old, and he will be a co-author on our research,” Georgescu said.

For Gupta, the experience gives him a chance to expand his technological reach and pursue his passion in computer science.

“I have learned three computer languages and four scripting languages. Climate change is interesting, and I’d like to apply computer science to other disciplines, like architecture and astronomy.”

It also keeps his computer science skills sharp.

“I have this talent,” Gupta said. “This gives me a way to use it.”

Top photo: Sixteen-year-old Vishesh Gupta pulls up climate models on the computer with associate professor Matt Georgescu watching on Friday. The BASIS Scottsdale high junior works with Georgescu and postdoctoral researcher Scott Krayenhoff to analyze existing data to project outcomes on climate and hydrology as the result of certain types of land development. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Testing evidence kits sends positive message to rape victims, ASU expert says

ASU expert says state effort to clear rape kit backlog sends positive message.
January 11, 2017

Gov. Doug Ducey vows to allocate money to ease backlog of unexamined evidence

Gov. Doug Ducey promised that when he releases his budget Friday, he'll allocate enough money to clear the backlog of untested rape kits in Arizona.

An Arizona State University expert on sexual assault believes that will send a positive message to rape victims.

portrait of ASU professor Cassia Spohn

Cassia Spohn (left), director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, recently wrote an article about untested sexual-assault kits for the Journal of Criminology and Public Policy.

“It’s a complicated issue, and the reasons vary from one jurisdiction to another,” said Spohn, who also is a Foundation Professor and author of “Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault: Inside the Criminal Justice System,” which was published in 2014.

Evidence kitsWhen a sexual assault is reported to police, the victim undergoes an exhaustive examination of the entire body, with swabs and photographs, for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker—a process that takes four to six hours to complete. That evidence is preserved in a sexual assault evidence kit. are sitting untested across the country. The nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation tracks the issue and estimates that there are hundreds of thousands untested rape kits nationwide.

Last year, Ducey created a task force to study the issue, which he admitted was so bad that no one knew how many kits were untested. In September, the Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force released a report, revealing that there were more than 6,400 unsubmitted sex crimes evidence kits across Arizona. During the year, several police departments received grants to clear the backlog, and the group estimated that by the time the grant money ran out, there would be 2,000 untested kits remaining.

During his State of State speech Monday, Ducey said that the testing resulted in two indictments and that he would ask the Legislature to fund the testing of the remaining backlog, as well as future evidence kits.

Spohn discussed why that’s important:

Question: Why do so many jurisdictions have large backlogs of untested rape kits?

Answer: One reason is a lack of laboratories to do the testing, and a lack of resources.

Also, some jurisdictions have adopted policies where they triage the testing of kits, so those in which the victims and suspects are strangers are prioritized. But those are not the cases that occur with the most frequency in the U.S. The typical sexual assault that is reported to the police involve a victim and a suspect who are acquainted in some way. So if those are not the priority, a lot of kits won’t be tested.

Q: Are there good reasons for testing kits involving victims and suspects who are not strangers?

A: I think there are. For example, testing can confirm that there was sexual contact. The suspect might claim there was no contact.

It can confirm the identity of the suspect, and it could possibly reveal that the suspect has committed crimes like this in the past.

Q: And what about the victims?

A: The victims who report the crime to police undergo what is by all accounts a degrading forensic medical exam only to be told that their kit sat on the shelf in a police evidence room and was never sent for testing. That says “we don’t think this case is important and we’re not going to do all we can to ensure that the suspect is brought to justice.”

Testing the kit sends a message that “We realize this exam was difficult, and we appreciate that face and we’re going to take it seriously.”

Q: Is there more awareness about this issue?

A: There’s clearly a recognition in the Department of Justice that this is a problem. The department has established a grant program that allows jurisdictions to apply for federal funding to reduce their backlog. 

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now