Locusts look like typical grasshoppers, but their swarming behavior distinguishes them from the grasshoppers you might find in your yard. Under certain conditions, maturing locusts reproduce rapidly and gather together forming destructive swarms called hopper bands. Jacob Landsberg’s thesis investigated the physics behind locust hopper bands’ collective motions. Studying the way these swarms move could be used to help disrupt their movements and prevent them from destroying crops around the world.
His research began last summer as a data science researcher at Harvey Mudd College, as a part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program.
“I was drawn to the project because I could combine what I had learned from physics, statistics, and computer science classes and apply it to an ecological problem with important real-world implications,” said Landsberg, a physics major and history minor.
Previous research analyzing locusts’ movements depended upon data from laboratory experiments or still frames taken from field videos. Landsberg’s thesis used a computer program to automatically track the movement of each locust through videos taken in the field in Australia, so he had much more robust data on which to base his analyses of collective motions.
After graduation, Landsberg started work as a technical solutions engineer at Epic Systems in Madison, WI, where he continues to use the problem-solving and computer science skills he developed during his thesis process. Eventually, he plans to pursue an advanced degree in an environmental science-related field to continue investigating important ecological issues.
How did your thesis advisors help you develop your topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?
I worked with two advisors from Harvey Mudd College: Professors Jasper Weinburd and Andrew Bernoff and also my Haverford advisor, Professor Suzanne Amador Kane. Professors Jasper Weinburd and Andrew Bernoff were previously working on studying the movement of locust swarms when I joined their REU program. However, they both gave me a huge amount of freedom in choosing the direction my thesis went, while giving my advice along the way. I worked most regularly with Professor Jasper Weinburd, and he consistently helped me with my investigations, giving me the support, help, and independence I needed. Professors Suzanne Amador Kane and Andrew Bernoff also continually gave me amazing support, pointing me towards new literature or to different methods of analysis. All three of my advisors helped to make the research process rewarding, enjoyable, and simply doable.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
Contrary to what I thought when I was beginning my thesis was the breadth of learning my project would take. I assumed that conducting successful scholarly research necessitated diving deeply into a very narrow academic niche. In some ways, I did focus narrowly with my thesis, investigating groups of one very specific insect. However, since my project was so interdisciplinary, I was able to work with computer scientists, physicists, biologists, and mathematicians, learning unique bits and pieces from each of them. I loved working at the nexus of all these disciplines and hope that I get another opportunity in the future.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.