Cool Coder Creates Eclipse App for the Arctic

Josh Reed recently spent three months in Antarctica implementing one of the worst-named, but coolest applications to come across my desk in a month of Sundays—literally. It's a graphical editing tool called the Paleontological Stratigraphic Interval Construction and Analysis Tool (PSICAT). He developed it for a group of international scientists working on the Antarctic geological drilling project, better known as ANDRILL. Those beparka'd researchers are seeking to ''drill back in time'' to recover a history of paleo-environmental changes evident in sediment core samples from below the Antarctic ice shelf.

PSICAT, which Josh would like us to pronounce 'sigh-cat,' but which I can't help seeing in my head as ''pussycat'' (even the acronym blows), is an Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP) application that he customized to the task of working with stratigraphic columns. The application allows researchers to input core descriptions, and to store underlying information, such as the depths at which sand, ore, mud, fossils, and other materials were found.

''Before, scientists who were interested in particular aspects of the core—say, two- or three-meter sections that don't have any pyrite or don't have fractures—would have to search through 1286 meters of images,'' Josh explains. ''But now, because we have the data, I can type in a few things, and bam , spit out depth ranges for them to go to directly.''

Josh is a soft-spoken (at least on the phone) 24-year-old, studying for his Masters in Human Computer Interaction at Iowa State University. When I asked him for his title, he said, ''Um... Josh.'' But I think the Rochester, Minnesota, native is actually considered the IT manager of the ANDRILL project.

His academic advisor, Cinzia Cervato, is the one who recommended him for this gig. She's an associate professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Studies, as well as a consulting scientist to the ANDRILL project. When she heard at a conference that the project's sedimentologists were logging core samples using bulky drawing tools, such as Corel Draw and Photoshop, she thought there might be a better way, and she thought of Josh.

''I thought that Josh was perfect for the project,'' she told the Iowa State University News Service. ''I had worked with him for a couple of years already and knew that he was a great coder.''

The drawing tools the ANDRILL scientists were using were providing them with pretty diagrams for publication, but they were unwieldy hunks of bloatware in this context. Josh's initial job was to come up with a leaner, more specialized tool with just the features the scientists needed.

''Once I started looking at the problem, I realized that the ultimate solution would be to get away from the images, which just displayed the data,'' Josh says. ''The real solution, for me, was to capture that data, so that they could do other things with it.''

Josh spent a year and a half working on the software, meeting with scientists, gathering requirements, and writing code. During that period, he worked closely with Dr. Chris Fielding, a sedimentologist on the ANDRILL project.

He built the application with the Eclipse RCP because of the flexibility its plug-in architecture provided. ''From the beginning we felt that, though we were developing PSICAT for ANDRILL, this was an application that could be used by other projects,'' Josh says. ''Even within ANDRILL there are other groups of scientists who would want their data displayed along with the core log. Eclipse allowed me to develop the features I needed up front, but it also left the door open for new features as they were identified, and for customizations for particular groups.''

He also used the Eclipse Graphical Editing Framework, so he didn't have write any ''yucky'' graphics code.

Josh blogged about his adventures in the frozen north, and his account is well worth checking out. Also, the Des Moines Register published some nice shots of Josh standing next to big hunks of ice. The pix on his blog are better.

The next time it feels like you're working under harsh conditions, consider coding in temperatures that dipped to 40 degrees below zero.

BTW: There has always been this weird intrastate rivalry between Josh's school, Iowa State, and my alma mater, the University of Iowa—at least as long as I can remember. When I mentioned that I attended UI about a million years ago, Josh sort of groaned, so I guess that rivalry persists, at least a bit. He didn't make a big deal out of it, of course, and neither did I. These kinds of things are silly. Iowa State is a great university, a Big Twelve school, famed for its science and engineering departments. The fact that it was once thought of as an agricultural college—an ''ag'' school—is simply part of its rich history, and in no way diminishes its stature, at least not in my eyes. I have a brother who graduated from Iowa State and went on to become a medical doctor. Several of my cousins went there, and not one of them is a farmer. It would be beneath me to refer to this fine institution of higher learning as ''Moo U'' or ''The Udder U.'' So I won't. 

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].