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From ice caps to deserts, Mikesell's research environs have been extreme

From Inside UVa
April 14, 2000

By Rebecca Arrington

While examining computer data that measures plant growth, doctoral student David Mikesell came across a surprise -- the data predicted that a Utah desert had far more ground cover than it should have. The figure "stood out like a sore thumb," he said. After making a few adjustments to the program, the model is now producing accurate information, he said.

Through an interdisciplinary program in scientific data management, based in the computer science and environmental sciences departments, Mikesell analyzes data from computer models. Designed by environmental sciences professor William Emanuel, the models chart plant growth and weather, and simulate climate on a global scale. Mikesell inspects them for possible skewed information.

Entering the data "is the easy part," he said. "The tougher job is finding out what the data in a particular model means, and why what you got out of it is what you got."

Though Mikesell had no formal computer science background when he applied to graduate school, U.Va. professor John Pfaltz of the Engineering School's computer science department "liked the research I'd been involved in" as an undergraduate and as a scientist.

Mikesell, who earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of California-Irvine, spent 18 months over a four-year period in Antarctica studying the impact of the 1,200 humans now living there. He also conducted biological studies on penguins and other sea life found there.

As he continues his research at U.Va., Mikesell plans to identify and fix any problems he may find inside other computer models, applying the custom-built tool he designed -- a working system of some 10,000 lines of computer programming code. He said his work here has taught him and others "how to better manage scientific data, and how to efficiently store and retrieve data."

Almost finished with his course work and hoping to complete his Ph.D. within 2 1/2 years, Mikesell has found the climate as a U.Va. graduate student warm. "This is a great place to study," he said. "The professors are open and enthusiastic to suggestions."

Mikesell may teach after graduate school. He also wants to work with an organization his wife, Brenda, is involved in -- the Foundation for Indigenous Languages. The group assists people of the world who don't use writing as a means to communicate. Mikesell said he could teach them how to purify drinking water or administer basic first aid.

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