JSAlumnus Jeremy Shar ’06 received a Fulbright research grant to Chile where he’s currently working to demonstrate that a network of cellphones can be harnessed to detect earthquakes and give early warning — perhaps 10 or 20 seconds — enough that people could stop trains, pause surgeries, take cover, or evacuate a building.

“I've always had a very abstract fascination with Chile, especially its landscape,” said Jeremy. “I tried to design a research project proposal based around my experience with geology, math, and programming that suited Chile as well.”

Earthquake detection networks and early warning systems are being developed all over the world with dedicated seismic stations, but Jeremy sees the sheer ubiquity of cellphones as a huge advantage to using cellphones because they create a vast network of earthquake sensors that far outnumber seismic stations. Furthermore, most smartphones are built with the necessary equipment for a seismometer — GPS and an accelerometer that tracks the phone’s motion.

Phones can be calibrated to sense what’s known as a P-wave, which is produced by an earthquake before the major damaging waves arrive. The idea, Jeremy explains, is for “each phone to sense the shaking caused by an earthquake, calculate its own location using GPS, and transmit the shaking and location data to a central server for processing, which can then trigger a warning that an earthquake is imminent.”

The challenge Jeremy faces is to fine-tune the less sensitive cellphone accelerometers so they can detect P-waves through all the other motion phones experience on a daily basis.

When he’s not developing earthquake alert systems, Jeremy spends time in Santiago’s Plaza de Armas at a daily chess club, which has provided a local community for him and assuaged Jeremy’s initial concerns about the social isolation he might experience by moving to a foreign city to work on an independent research project.

“It's been an enjoyable and almost surreal experience getting to know the members of this eclectic and lively group who play blitz chess and joke with each other as the sun goes down at the end of the workday.”

Even after finding a new community, Jeremy was frustrated to discover that — despite having studied many years of Spanish — he could barely understand anything people said when he first arrived in Santiago. But he hasn’t given up and has noticed recent improvement in his ability to follow the brisk pace of speech and understand the Chileno slang.

“I fail at almost everything multiple times before I succeed. My technique for dealing with failure has been trying to accept its inevitability without getting discouraged. Maybe by the time I leave I’ll be fluent in Chileno!”

Jeremy still remembers Nueva fondly. “[Nueva is] such a large part of who I am today, and it inspired me in many ways. The rapport with teachers and classmates alike, and the feeling of play and adventure infused in all of the classes and schoolwork are some of what made Nueva unique and special to me.”

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