Quick show of hands: Who's ready for the next pandemic? Yeah, me neither. After all, I'm still in the middle of this one (The middle? The beginning? Not the end, that's for sure).
Still, prepare we must. Or should. As Foreign Affairs writes in its July/August issue: "This pandemic is probably not 'the Big One,' the prospect of which haunts the nightmares of epidemiologists and public health officials everywhere."
My nightmares contain more prosaic concerns (last night I had a very long dream involving a jammed printer and a ham sandwich, for example), but my daytime mind often focuses on the matters at hand: New Mexico's rate of transmission, new case numbers, new COVID-19 models. In an ideal world, technology will advance in such a way that by the next pandemic, I will be able to instantaneously download enough epidemiological and computational knowledge into my English-major brain to generate SIR models in my sleep, but chances are I will rely on the next generation of scientists for such data.
That's a promising proposition thanks to the Supercomputing Challenge (supercomputingchallenge.org). The New Mexico program, open to students in grades 4 through 12 across the state, allows teen participants to devote themselves to a science project throughout the year involving high-performance super computers.
Last April, Challenge organizers asked me to help judge the best-written report from a group of finalists. I have graded and judged many papers over the last decade, but this was a particularly rewarding and challenging experience. The student projects included computational solutions to topics such as re-forestation through drone use; computerized police-officer placement; and an activity-by-contact model to predict enhancer-gene connections, among others. As I sheltered in place, I took comfort realizing the next generation will likely solve many of our pressing problems, leaving me free to yell at my printer.
Those projects were basically wrapped up when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but next year's will likely tackle the scientific challenges wrought by our current moment. To that end, the Supercomputing Challenge is hosting a virtual Summer Science Institute on July 16 that will include lightning talks on topics related to the pandemic (such as epidemiology, virus modeling and machine learning). From the lightning talks, students will then be offered break-out sessions on the topics that interest them most.
Supercomputing Challenge Executive Director Paige Prescott tells me it's the first time the organization is offering a summer institute, an endeavor bolstered by the numerous scientists who serve as volunteer mentors, as well as the view that the novel coronavirus presents a highly teachable moment.
"A lot of the camps have closed…and a lot of summer opportunities for kids have not gone forward," Prescott says, "so we're riding the energetic wave of our mentors and volunteers, but also helping to fulfill a niche."
After my own judging experience, I had assumed the Supercomputing Challenge—an extra-curricular activity—primarily appeals to high-achieving math and science students. Not so, she says.
"We attract students that are really the high achievers and we also attract the middle range students who are kind of like, 'meh,' or maybe they get pulled along by their friend and they get inspired, and we draw kids that are not necessarily academically successful grade-wise who can really get into a project and be very successful," she says. "We feel there is a lot of differentiation and [the program] attracts a wide range."
Prescott became the organization's executive director in January, has held multiple roles with it since 2007 and also is executive director and co-founder of the Computer Science Alliance. Based on previous experiences, she expects to see many pandemic-related projects from students in next year's challenge. As COVID-19 became a top news story, students saw how their current computational modeling and data analysis work "is part of problem solving of the future…they got to see the relevance." In 2009, she notes, the H1N1 pandemic impacted "teenagers more than any other demographic." Projects that year, and even the year after had an epidemiological focus. "The kids really latch onto things they feel are important to their lives, and they want to iterate on it and usually the projects in supercomputing challenge reflect that as well."
I wondered if the current students might undertake projects with real-world value. Prescott thought it perfectly likely, given that the teens aren't constrained by government bureaucracy and other limitations faced by their adult counterparts. And even if next year's projects don't solve this year's problems, chances are some students may be inspired to solve future ones.
"Many times, kids get into the medical field because of a medical event that either happened to them young or someone they cared for in their immediate network," Prescott says. "I do think this will spawn more interest in things like data science, things like epidemiology and health care in general. It feels like a call for action. We've all learned a lot."