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Amherst Woman, 18, Researching Ancient Typhoons, Tsunamis

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Shohini Kundu (Photo from: arps.org)

Shohini Kundu (Photo from: arps.org)

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AMHERST, Mass. (AP) — She talks softly and rapidly as she gives a tour of the University of Massachusetts geology lab where she is working for her third straight summer. She explains her research on how the makeup of sediment gives clues to ancient tsunamis and typhoons in southern Japan with the authority of a seasoned scientist, deftly tossing out weighty terms she is happy to explain for the uninitiated.

But Shohini Kundu is just 18. She got her diploma from Amherst Regional High School just a few weeks ago.

She shows off the long slender log-like “cores” of sediment gathered from lakes on the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, kept in a cooler on the second floor of the Morrill Science Center, pointing out how the change in appearance tells a story of its past. Sandlike grains imbedded in the mud indicate the area was inundated by a tsunami or typhoon, which carried the particles from the ocean. Further experiments she conducted in a lab down the hall determined how long ago the flooding happened.

The goal, she said, is to see if it is possible to reconstruct a timeline for typhoons or tsunamis that occurred thousands of years ago in southern Japan. “Our research showed ways we could analyze the sediment and, yes, it is possible,” she said.

She is studying the typhoons that were believed to have wiped out the Mongol Fleets, led by Kublai Khan in his attempt to take over the Island of Kyushu in the 13th century — storms that profoundly affected the history of Japan, said UMass sedimentologist Jonathan Woodruff, Kundu’s mentor.

Kundu’s research shows that these storms, which the Japanese believe were sent by the gods to save them, did in fact occur, he said.

Under Woodruff’s supervision, she and adjunct assistant professor Kinuyo Kanamaru are working on a paper together this summer that they hope will be published.

She doesn’t know when or where (“these things take time”), but “professor Woodruff has some ideas about that,” she said.

Kundu’s efforts have already drawn national and international recognition. Initial papers she wrote on the research resulted in her being named a semifinalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search for high school students this spring. Two years ago she received an award from the Association of Women Geoscientists and qualified for the International Sustainable World Project Olympiad for Energy, Environment and Engineering in Houston, Texas. This year her paper was selected for oral presentation at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She was awarded first place among the southern New England states and then presented her paper at the national Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Dayton, Ohio, in May.

Kundu, who carries her stuff around in an overstuffed pink backpack, says research is fun. “I’ve enjoyed the work a lot. I mean, when you look at the results it is really encouraging that you are doing something right and you just continue to make more discoveries,” she said.

“She’s very impressive, a talented young researcher,” Woodruff said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s certainly not common to have someone at her stage to have done the type of research she has done.” He said the fact that she is writing a paper he believes is likely to be published is a rare feat for a student just out of high school. “It is a testament to her drive and her scientific abilities,” he said.

She is the first high school student Woodruff has ever taken on in his lab.

“She was very proactive in seeking out opportunities in the department,” he said. And it appeared she was serious about pursuing the type of work his lab was conducting, that is, using sediments to construct what he calls high-magnitude, low-frequency events like typhoons, tsunamis and hurricanes.

He said watching her approach in the lab convinced him she was someone he wanted to keep around. “So we pushed her a little more to do higher-end analysis and began trusting her a little more with the data she was producing and the end result is great research.”

Kundu says science is her passion. But so are writing, debate, classical Indian dance and business.

Kundu, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India in the late 1980s, had a thought-provoking article on prejudice published on the teen blog in the Huffington Post last year. She has performed classical Indian dance at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and at the governor’s mansion in Hartford, Conn. She plays the piano and writes short stories and poems — she took first place in a poetry competition sponsored by Boston College in 2008.

She also founded the debate team at her high school and was a key member of the Future Business Leaders of Amherst group that raised $8,000 for Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton over the course of her four years in high school.

Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N. Y., where she is enrolled for the fall, might be earth and planetary science. Or maybe public policy. She says she’ll see.

At the moment, the scales are tipped toward science.

“Science is definitely a passion of mine,” she said, as she led the way through the under-renovation halls of the sprawling science center at UMass earlier this month. She said she exhausted the math and science curricula at Amherst High, and began taking classes at UMass and Amherst College — multivariable calculus, electromagnetism and optics, computer science.

“Because I was really enamored by the nature of math and science — there are so many thing you can do with math and science — I began pursuing these courses at a higher level,” she said. “So I guess in that sense, science and math are my priorities over the other activities.”

Mary McCarthy, her teacher at Amherst Regional High for Advanced Placement biology and adviser for the INTEL competition, underscored Kundu’s willingness to work hard and go beyond high school requirements. “Shohini is a motivated student with a strong work ethic,” she said. “She has taken on a number of demanding classes and activities.”

But McCarthy also noted Kundu’s sense of fun, relating a story about her work with a group studying stem cells. “In addition to researching the topic carefully and preparing a formal presentation, Shohini also wrote a rap and helped organize friends to participate in filming this song,” she wrote in an email.

Kundu’s interest in science all started with that question so many tots ask: Why is the sky blue?

“I was fascinated by the weather and how it changed,” she said. “As I grew older my parents really got me into playing with magnets and compasses and soon I was doing experiments.”

In middle school she joined an after-school program that focuses on scientific research and she has taken on a research project every year since, collecting numerous awards at science fairs.

Her interest in earth-shattering events like quakes and tsunamis was piqued three years ago when she spent a summer in Kyushu with her family. Her father, Sandip Kundu, an electrical and computer engineer at UMass, was there on a fellowship. During her stay, she said, she experienced an earthquake (“nothing major”), a monsoon and a cloudburst, which got her thinking seriously again about those weather questions that had always intrigued her.

When she visited Mount Aso and started pondering the fact that volcanic eruptions predated humans, she wondered how the story of those eruptions could be told.

She traveled the next summer to Norway on a U.S. State Department scholarship to study eco-management systems, and when she got back she began seeking an internship to pursue her interests in the Earth’s processes.

Woodruff took her on and she was off and running.

Her first two summers were research-heavy. Last year she worked all day for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in Hadley, pulling up invasive plants in the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge. She’d go home, take a shower and scoot over to Woodruff’s lab, where she worked alone analyzing the sediment from the Japanese lakes. She’d head home at 11 p.m.

This summer, the effort is on writing.

The science writing she is doing now is a bit different from the eloquent piece she sent off to the Huffington Post two years ago. That essay, called “Shades of Otherness,” describes her impressions traveling through Europe as a non-Muslim Indian and her dismay at seeing how Pakistani people, derisively referred to as “Pakis,” are treated as the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

“Turn to the newspapers,” she wrote “and there is constant talk of homegrown terrorism, pictures of women in abaya as symbols of oppression and constant coaching by both mainstream media and tabloids on how to perceive Muslims — experts warning about disenfranchised Paki youths and tabloids celebrating Muslim women who have broken free.”

She said none of that squared with what she saw. She said Muslim men and women were family-bound and the Muslim youth were not the ones out of control. She said she was accosted by a British youth high on drugs who pulled her out of a train while uttering expletives. It was “one of the scariest moments of my life.”

“The victimization of Muslims in Europe is all too real,” she wrote.

Kundu’s parents were born near Calcutta. Her father came to the United States to get his doctorate at the University of Iowa and then returned home to marry her mother, Deblina, who studied history.

They moved first to New York in 1988, where he worked for IBM, and then to Austin, Texas, where he took a job with Intel. Kundu and her family, which includes her older sister, Shinjini, who is working on her doctorate in electrical engineering and a medical degree, moved to Amherst in 2005. With such serious thinking going on in her head so much of the time, what does Kundu like to do for fun?

Hang out with her friends, of course, was one answer, play foosball, swim, play tennis and watch TV. “Lots of TV,” she said.

That was a surprise, so take heart, parents.

And right now she is focused on studying the Massachusetts driver’s manual so she can get her license.

“Finally!” she said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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