WEST LOOP — Some teens spend their extracurricular time in clubs, sports or jobs. Chicagoan Nikita Agrawal spends hers researching how to predict wildfires in the United States.
Using tools learned during a summer internship with NASA, Agrawal has created a model for forecasting large wildfires across the United States with a high degree of accuracy.
Agrawal presented her research virtually last month at the 11th annual International Conference on Sustainable Development. In December, she will present at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting in San Francisco.
Agrawal, a South Loop resident and senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet School, is not only interested in wildfire prevention but also in advancing environmental justice. She said she’s deeply concerned about the effects of climate change and wildfires on “environmentally disadvantaged” communities.
The Federal Justice 40 Initiative defines “environmentally disadvantaged” as areas overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure and health care.
Through Agrawal’s research, she said she sees a chance to help ensure the Justice 40 Initiative makes good on its promise of committing 40 percent of certain federal investments to environmentally disadvantaged communities.
“There is a huge disparity where some communities suffer greatly from” climate disasters, Agrawal said. “They don’t have the resources to help counter or safeguard against them.”
Start In STEM
Agrawal’s interest in science goes back to her middle school days at Whitney Young’s Academic Center. She gravitated toward math and science courses, which spurred her interest in research, she said.
During her freshman year, Agrawal organized a team of schoolmates who wanted to learn how to conduct research outside of school. She persuaded her physics teacher to sponsor the team’s application to the Argonne National Laboratory Exemplary Student Research Program.
Argonne accepted the team’s proposal. Over the next two school years, Agrawal and her teammates conducted and presented research on sustainable batteries at Argonne. The experience spurred Agrawal’s passion for collaborative problem-solving.
“Being able to collaborate with students, scientists and academics … was very enjoyable,” Agrawal said.
Agrawal’s interest in the connection between wildfires and climate change started in 2018, when she learned through news reports about the California Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.
Last year, Agrawal spent part of the summer in Portland with her father as wildfires raged across the state. She also participated in a virtual NASA STEM summer intern program, which she had applied to because it offered earth science internships.
During the internship, Agrawal and her peers learned how to apply computer programming and machine learning — training a computer to recognize patterns in data — to environmental problems. The interns collected their data via remote sensing, which is a way to acquire scientific data from anywhere — even outer space.
Agrawal said these tools were exactly what she needed to begin her current research. When the 2022-23 school year started, she began exploring existing research on wildfire prediction and found a gap: Few studies looked at wildfire occurrences on a national level.
“Current wildfire research models are region-specific and not applicable across the entire United States,” Agrawal said.
To make her research useful to scientists and policymakers on a national level, Agrawal knew she needed to analyze variables related to wildfires, such as average temperature and vegetation, for various U.S. regions. Remote sensing was key to getting this data, and machine learning helped her analyze it to create her wildfire prediction model.
Agrawal also identified regions where high wildfire risk overlaps with environmentally disadvantaged communities, such as areas of Oklahoma.
Taking on an independent research project of this scale is arguably not for the faint of heart, let alone a high school student, her teachers and mentors said.
Russanne Low, senior scientist at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and Agrawal’s mentor during her NASA internship, said it’s atypical for a high school student to present at a national scientific conference.
“Nikita is absolutely the star student. She really did tremendous work … and took the liberty to fully afford herself of all the advantages” of the internship, Low said, adding that she invited Agrawal back to NASA to be a peer mentor.
Making The World A ‘More Livable Place’
Agrawal is quick to credit Low and her teachers, including Whitney Young computer science teacher Andrew Mauer-Oats and science department chair Anna Gallardo, for their guidance.
Whitney Young principal Rickey Harris said Agrawal’s work aligns with the school’s core values: respect, empathy, resilience and integrity.
“Nikita embodies all of that. Her respect for the global community, her empathy for victims of wildfires, her resilience to keep pressing through such a complex topic, the integrity of her research. … I’m looking forward to the impact she will make on the world,” Harris said.
Agrawal has racked up appearances and awards, including third place earlier this year in the Environmental and Earth Sciences category at the world’s largest high school science fair.
Agrawal is also the president and co-founder of FinPro World, a nonprofit that works to educate students on financial topics through computer programming, especially in communities where such information is limited. Her nonprofit work won her the grand prize at the 2023 Prudential Emerging Visionaries Summit.
Agrawal said she is looking for a university with strong foundational courses in math, science and economics, but she has shied away from naming schools or offering more specifics.
Agrawal spends her down time practicing karate — she recently earned her Black Belt — solving jigsaw puzzles and crocheting hats.
And she continues to hone her wildfire-prediction research model for future conference presentations.
“We learned in NASA SEES that it’s not just about doing the research; you have to be able to share it with other people,” she said.
There’s a return on that investment.
“It is fun to meet all these people who are working on very important problems,” Agrawal said. “It puts a lot of things in perspective, like how much work we can do to make this world a better … more livable place.”
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