Cool Coder Creates Eclipse App for the Arctic
- By John K. Waters
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached
at [email protected].