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Trees on fire

Tuesday, June 4, 2013, by Dmitri Ilushin
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Kenya? Been there. Japan? Seen that. Michigan highway I-96? Saw that last week. The best part is that I can do all this without leaving the comfort of my computer.

My research at the forest involves trying to extract the day that leaves come out and when they fall off. The thing is, we don't really notice when the world gets just a bit hotter each year ourselves, but trees and other types of plants react pronouncedly to any subtle changes in average temperatures. I study these reactions by looking at pictures of trees over time from cameras located all around the world. In doing so, I try to grab a signal from these photos that can tell me what the rhythm of the seasons is like. This is a new technique that I am trying to understand how accurately this describes what's going on around us. One of the major issues that I have to try to address comes from the lack of control from the cameras. These cameras are all controlled by other people, free to do whatever they want to with the cameras; sometimes 

[A tree in all four seasons.]

they rotate their view, other times they stop streaming photos altogether. With all these different cameras and their intricacies, my work this summer will involve creating processes to filter out relevant information from the 60,000,000+ photos and then smooth out the resulting data to find out just when spring and fall happen all around the world. By getting a better idea of just what happens as the earth continues to heat up, we can hopefully get a better idea of how to best keep our earth sustainable for life indefinitely.

[Fisher house is one of the two residences. “It's nice” is an understatement."]

You might be thinking to yourself, why is this guy at a biological summer program? It sounds like he just works with computers and pictures. Well, I actually am an applied mathematics/computer science major at school; it just so happens that even biologists need computer shamans, those select people that have an affinity for communicating with the spirits of technology. Really, I see myself as a toolkit-other people employ my skills to suit their project, and with a little thought and elbow grease, I can get anything done. Really, many fields are more cross-disciplinary than we think, and applying myself in an unfamiliar area opens up a new way of thinking.

[Yeah, I'm the goof who messed up on crossing his arms.]

The living arrangements here are incredible. We stay in two cottages that are right at the entrance to the Harvard forest. Think about the one in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, except instead of Snow White we have our proctor, Monica, and instead of the seven dwarves, there are nine summer interns.

Just last Monday, May 20 all of us REU students met each other and began our program. I found out that this summer, I'm in a group of four people all generally working on different aspects of phenology (the study of the rhythm of the seasons). The four of us work in a cool, air conditioned room, which although unnoticed now will soon be appreciated once summer gets into full gear. We all sit in front of computers, typing away on our keyboards, studying different charts, and making the ever-so-useful box plot to show data in nice ways. We've been getting to know each other by chatting while work goes on. Really, though, the work is hard but we've all been hard at work.

Sunday morning, May 26 a group of five of us researchers rode up to the fire tower. Riding on the dirt road was more of a struggle than I would have thought-partly because of a fallen tree and some sweet mud puddles we got to splash around in- but the view was worth it. I realize that as nice as it is to be indoors in climate control, it's nice to take advantage of the surround area once in a while. Plus, living in 60 degree weather sure beats the sweltering heat my parents talk about. 

[A view of the Harvard Forest from the fire tower Sunday morning.]

Dmitri Ilushin

Quirky Q&A with Dmitri

What's your favorite board game?

Not to go into too much detail, but I'd have to say that the game Primordial Soup would be my number one, followed closely by bughouse. Primordial Soup is a game where you have amoeba that have genetic mutations and advance on the board based on the number of mutations and amoeba that are in your control. It's really cool in that you have so many different ways to play your character; you could be aggressive and attack others, or you could try to live as meekly as possible.

If you could be a superhero with a special power, what would it be?

If I could be a superhero with a special ability, I would choose to have the power to pinch to zoom objects in real life, with the fatal flaw that I am often not perfect in my target for pinch to zoom. It would create funny situations which would be self-created. I'd probably be called "The SuperSizer" or something like that.

You have the choice to live with a gorilla who knows sign language or a dog who sings lullabies, which do you choose?

Given the option, I would rather pick a gorilla who knows sign language. If I'm living with him, we're probably cool enough to where he would go places and we would be great friends. Who wouldn't want a gorilla? As for the singing dog, I don't know how well the dog would be at singing, or whether it could even sing in English. With the gorilla, it would still be really fun to try communicating with him. 

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