How I published in a scientific journal at age 12
A student writes about the inspiration behind his model for earthquake prediction – and what he learned on his (“tedious but worth it”) journey to publication
By Suganth Kannan Posted on 27 March 2014
Shortly after this story was published, Suganth Kannan presented his mathematical model at a science conference, predicting an imminent earthquake in San Francisco 50 miles from the actual site. Read about his earthquake prediction in Elsevier Connect and in a subsequent story in SPIEGEL Online in Germany.
I heard a sound in my email Inbox. It was from the editor-in-chief of Elsevier's Engineering Failure Analysis journal. I opened the email and read that my paper was accepted to be published under some conditions for revisions per peer reviewer's comments.
I was jubilant and felt great about the days and nights I spent on the earthquake prediction research. My brain started sending reverse neural messages to search and that lead to a flashback mode.
'A moment that was hard to swallow'
It all started because of an earthquake I experienced.
Summer 2011. I was in Maryland attending a violin camp and staying with my friends. While we were at lunch, the table started shaking and all things around me began trembling, and I initially thought someone was vigorously pushing the table. Then a picture on the wall starting spinning, building alarms started ringing with loud noise. Few minutes later all slowly became normal; then an adult came running into the building for us to evacuate the area due to earthquake. My mouth became dry, and it was a moment that was hard to swallow that I am in an earthquake. Luckily no one was hurt.
From real life to research
I always thought earthquakes occur in the west coast, Turkey, Japan and other places. I became curious about earthquakes and wanted to learn more about them.
I read books, papers and articles and was shocked to know there are not many effective earthquake prediction systems to warn the public. So I developed a motivation to predict earthquakes to reduce the shock factor and provide emergency officials time to inform the public. With the knowledge I have gained on the topic and my chess playing skills, I thought there should be a method to this madness of nature, meaning there has to be an identifiable pattern in earthquake occurrence.
Around this time at my school, I started taking Dr. Charles Golden's honors research class. Dr. Golden introduced us scientific research and told us to identify a research topic to work on and write a hypothesis to submit. So I hypothesized that earthquakes are related and got his approval to do the research. I contacted US Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center and collected data on past earthquakes in six different zones around the world, namely the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, California, Hawaii, Turkey and Japan from 1990 to 2011.
Over next few months, I developed my own mathematical model based on spatial connection theory. I analyzed the data applying angle values and distances between consecutive earthquakes to arrive at a distance factor to predict future earthquakes based on fault zone dynamics.
Dr. Golden, my mentor, commented on my procedure and guided me along the way. I developed a distance factor for each of the six zones and was able to predict future earthquakes. Two of my predictions materialized within close proximity. I won my school science fair, went to the Broward County science fair, got first place and qualified for state science fair.
The judges I met in state science fair were thrilled by my unique scientific concept and advised me this research should be presented in conference and published. I won at the State Science & Engineering Fair of Florida.
Suganth Kannan attends high school at the American Heritage School in Plantation, Florida, where he participates in the Science Research Program under the mentorship of Dr. Charles Golden. He's an A+ student, serves as President of the National Junior Honor Society, holds various other leadership positions, and competes on the varsity swim team. In 2011, he won the Florida State Chess Championship K-8 division and was co-champion in the K-12 division of the US Open Chess Championship.
In 2012, Suganth Kannan presented his research on earthquake prediction at the Fifth Annual Conference on Engineering Failure Analysis (ICEFA) in The Hague, Netherlands.
In 2013, his research was published in the journal Engineering Failure Analysis, published by Elsevier in affiliation with the European Structural Integrity Society. His article — "Innovative Mathematical Model for Earthquake Prediction" — is freely available on ScienceDirect for three months, until June 20, 2014:
Kannan also recorded an AudioSlide presentation of his research, which you can find on the right-hand pane of the article on ScienceDirect:
'The journey presented its own challenges'
I aspired to present at an international conference and learned about the Fifth Annual Conference on Engineering Failure Analysis (ICEFA) in The Hague. I submitted my abstract and was accepted to do an oral presentation.
My parents and I then made plans for a trip to The Hague in July 2012.
The journey presented its own challenges. After an overnight holdover due to mechanical issues on the plane, the next day's flight was about to take off when the pilot announced that the computers were not working properly. I almost started crying since if I missed the flight, I would not be able to present at the conference. A quick checkup by ground crew and reboot of the computers (wow — even airline computers need to reboot!) solved the problem. We were little nervous when flight took off and went into prayers. I thought to myself, how crazy human race is, when in danger running towards god, solacing with the belief there is an power above us controlling all our actions.
Finally we arrived. As I entered the conference venue, I felt slight nervousness. As I walked up to the podium to present, I felt blood rush to my head. The conference room was packed, and I was introduced. I took a deep breath and commenced with my presentation of my research on earthquake prediction.
After I concluded I received inquisitive comments, questions and feedback, providing me with interesting insight into my research from researchers from around the world. My confidence grew as I interacted with a group of scientists from around the world during break time between sessions.
In the evening, I went for a conference excursion to Rotterdam, together with wonderful researchers from around the world, to see the great flood barrier Maeslantkering. A tour guide studying water resources engineering explained the history of the Maeslantkering. It has saved the Netherlands from going under sea water, most of which lies below sea level.
The next day's visit to the downtown area of The Hague by tram service was a fun activity with my parents. So many professionals were using bicycles to get to work with their suits and tie. The whole atmosphere of the downtown was relaxed, people were moving at leisure speed contrary to the mood of Miami or downtown of any major city in I've been to in the United States of America.
The following day, the conference team informed me that I could publish my research if I prepare and submit a detailed manuscript for peer review. They provided me with paperwork and link to the website to do that.
'Red is such a terrifying color'
When I returned home, I looked at the website and read about how to prepare manuscript. It was time-consuming and tedious (maybe because it was my first time around doing it). I wrote for days, read it, improved my writing and arrived at a draft copy and gave it to my mentor for his review.
A week later I got all red marked-up pages. I almost gave up. Red is such a terrifying color, you know. Due to practice, the human brain has fear associated with that color. (Um ... Why do some motorists do not stop after seeing a red light? Are they not afraid of red like me?!) But looking through it, I noticed the corrections were not as bad as I imagined them to be. I corrected and submitted my manuscript with tables, figures, pictures, graphs etc., onto their portal and received a compiled version of it for me to confirm submission. I agreed and the wait began.
Months rolled by and I was back in the next school year, busy with the routine learning. One day out of a blue moon received email about comments from reviewers on my manuscript.
I logged back onto the Elsevier website and found few documents with all comments. Wow – I did not think someone would take this much time to read, understand and provide comments on my work. They were pretty deep, encouraging and critical in places.
It took me close to three months, amidst my school work and other activities, to incorporate comments from the reviewers. Then I resubmitted my revised manuscript.
'I waited nervously every day ...'
After the tedious process, my interest to publish grew a bit more. I guess it is directly proportional to the work I put in! I waited nervously every day for an email to pop up in my inbox.
After few months, I did get that email that the editorial committee for the journal had accepted my manuscript for publication. I was jubilant and overjoyed at receiving the news I had been waiting to hear for months. They provided me with some minor comments and gave me 30 days to upload the updated final version.
4 tips to getting your science noticed
The following simple tips are to facilitate your scientific journey and feel happy about it. Enjoy it rather than feeling pressured. If you feel pressure build up at your heart, you will not function at your best. So learn to keep your heart rate normal.
1. Chose a topic you are curious about. As I discussed above, I chose earthquake forecasting because when I was 11 years old, I was present at a location where earthquake happened and became curious about how earthquakes occur and why we cannot get prior notice about it. (Even people who do not pay rent, get three day notice of eviction!) As I started reading about earthquake and its destructive power around the world and difficulties it causes to ecosystem, my curiosity turned into urge to find a solution to the problem.
2. Read and understand the topic. When I was curious, I found a way to go the extra mile to learn about the topic. I asked my parents to drop me off at the public library on the weekend for few hours and read books, articles, and journals at my own pace, accessed the internet and solidified what I read in the books. After two months of summer time well spent, I felt comfortable about the topic to chart out a plan for research in that area.
3. Identify mentors and learn to work with them. I realized that when I embark on doing something I am not fully familiar with, it is a great idea to have mentors. They encourage us as we sag in the process, make us do the work on time. Initially it feels like their expectations are at much higher plane, but the routine meetings and review made me understand and grow. In this way, I have progressed and learned more on how to work with them.
4. Have your heart set. This whole process is not an easy road to travel. I realized early on that unless I have my heart set on what I want to achieve with the research, I would give up along the way. So understand the high demand of hundreds of hours of work involved, and learn to take breaks and do other things that bring you back with more energy. Playing chess was my outlet; when I go and win some matches and feel good about it, it gives me energy to come back to research.
'The important lesson I learned ...'
Attending the conference and publishing my paper was tedious and tiring but worth it. This scientific research experience has provided me with immense knowledge about earthquakes and gave me basic understanding about science. I am able to apply scientific thoughts to every-day processes now. For example, when I go to the supermarket and pick up a milk can for my mother, I think about all the processes, like milking the cow, pasteurizing the milk, packaging, scheduling the refrigerated pickup, logistics of delivering to the right store, receiving and logging in to the seller's inventory system and stocking it — all that goes on before the milk gets to the shelf. The professors and researchers at the conference offered me excellent advice and were willing to communicate to help me further my research.
The important thing I learned from this experience is that sincerity and patience are key to success. The most valuable lesson I learned is to remain modest with success, since there is still lot more to learn. I have learned to appreciate the brilliancy of others and try to learn a bit from their expertise and apply it to what I do.
This process has made me a better student, and I am able to not just have a contact but build relationships from it. When you meet people and talk for few hours, you realize even though they are from other parts of the world, there is so much in common. For example: I met Dr. Richard Clegg, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal that published my paper and one of the leading researchers in material science area from Australia, and we quickly became friends due to mutual interest in the game of cricket. We communicate when we have time about cricket season in Australia and the world.
The journey continues ...
As a follow-up to my research, I am working on improving the accuracy of my model and expanding on my research by concentrating on the California fault zone to identify more detailed prediction methods that can be applied worldwide. I plan to create a new scale with "risk factors" for every zip code of the United States so the public can access this information to make educated decisions, similar to how people check neighborhood data when they plan to make a move to a new location. Then this can be expanded to other active earthquake zones of the world.