'Nowcasting' is the future

An Ashland High School graduate is part of a major breakthrough in lightning detection systems. It is a system that will ultimately make flying safer and aid in global warming research.

Ryan Said, in conjunction with Stanford University and Finnish company Vaisala, is preparing to launch the Global Lightning Dataset, a global lightning detection system that will fill the detection gap in areas where lightning was previously unmonitored. The system should be in place by January 2010.

"It will be a network that is able to monitor lightning strikes in real-time all over the world," Said said. "It's called 'nowcasting.'"

According to a press release from Vaisala, the network will "outperform satellite lightning detection systems by enabling uniform global coverage and by providing the timeliest information on rapidly evolving severe weather situations." Additionally, the dataset provides information over oceanic regions where there is a shortage of real time weather observations.

All of this has been a whirlwind ride for the Ashlander, whose research has brought him to the corners of the globe, including Antarctica and Ascension Island.

"The sensors need to be in an electrically quiet environment," Said said. "My research involved analyzing these radio impulses from lightning in the U.S., so it was necessary to travel to distant and remote locations to set up and maintain several of the sensors."

Said described the five-week trip to Antarctica, which included a week of travel by boat each way from southern Chile. The voyage was a "choppy ride that made many on board motion sick."

While in Antarctica, Said said he was equally interested in the many marine biology research projects also going on, and also participated in one of them.

"For one project, I helped count penguins on a nearby island," he said, "as part of a project that tracks penguin population size as a measure of climate change in the Antarctic."

The 1998 AHS graduate became involved in the project after receiving a degree in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He then went to Stanford, where he became involved in a research group while pursuing his PhD.

"The research group I joined at Stanford studied several natural phenomena associated with lightning," Said said. "I joined this group because it presented a mix of interesting scientific research and engineering experience."

Said's role in the group was to fill the gap between existing detection systems, accurately locating lightning strikes anywhere on the globe with a high level of efficiency.

The results of Said's research have major implications in the airline industry by allowing airline companies to efficiently adjust flight patterns in real time, thereby saving fuel and improving overall safety by avoiding turbulent storm centers. The system was also introduced at a global warming conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The system will aid in global warming research by allowing researchers to use lightning as a rainfall indicator in areas where weather radar measurements are unavailable.

Said has not forgotten his Ashland roots, and credits the education he received in Ashland's public schools as part of his success.

"My teachers at AMS and AHS were great at emphasizing understanding over simple memorization," he said. "They really care about the students and work hard to provide an excellent learning environment, which I'm sure helped me build momentum going into college."

Said mentioned a handful of teachers who were key in his development, some have since retired, but two were available to provide a reaction to Said's success.

"Ryan Said was a delightful student," said AHS physics teacher Kate Kennedy. "He clearly had a lot of natural ability, but he also had the work ethic to go along with it."

AHS math teacher Lori Thickett had a similar memory.

"As a student and member of the math team, he was a very bright young man," Thickett said. "I thought he was one of our best and brightest, and it has proven to be true."

Said will continue as a postdoctoral scholar Stanford for at least one more year in order to make further improvements to the network, and explore various applications for the new lightning dataset.

"After that, I'll likely look to have a research position in industry," He said.

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