SHARJAH // Shamma al Qassim presented her research with Nasa to a room of 16,000 space scientists, demonstrating how thermal infrared imagery could be used to predict earthquakes up to a month before they happen.
It was a tall order for a 19-year-old American University of Sharjah student, whose focus is on computer engineering rather than geospatial science.
Still, the UAE national said she was able to draw from her knowledge of basic science principles for the project, part of a 10-week internship with the space agency over the summer.
Ms al Qassim was one of three Emiratis chosen to be the first non-US citizens trained in Nasa's internship programme. She returned to the US last week to present her research on earthquake prediction techniques at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.
Research at the conference is expected to be published in one of the AGU's peer-reviewed science journals. The international scientific organisation has more than 50,000 members.
"I was successful at this because I could strengthen the science applications that I know, such as how scientific research is conducted and how to make it productive," she said. "But this is not something that I had really considered using my skills for before. To test out hypotheses like these and apply technical theories and things learned at university to a real-world problem such as earthquakes, which affect almost everyone, is a rare opportunity."
Ms al Qassim was selected by the Arab Youth Venture Foundation for the programme sponsored by Mubadala, the strategic investment arm of the Abu Dhabi Government.
In Nasa's laboratories, Ms al Qassim and a half a dozen American researchers drilled holes into large rocks and filled them with expanding cement, then monitored the stress caused and, using thermal imagery, the infrared radiation emitted.
They then compared that to satellite radars from previous earthquakes, using computer programs to help visualise the seismic energy.
It is not known why the rocks emit infrared radiation while under pressure, and such earthquake-predicting technology is not yet reliable. But a system could be put in place to regularly monitor changes in thermal infrared emission or detect hotspots, and Ms al Qassim said she believed it could eventually save lives. Earthquakes could be predicted days or even weeks before they occurred, she said.
"To hear the opinions of experts who are discussing your research, and the importance of the work and what it means for the science behind world natural disasters, is really an honour," she said, adding that she had not imagined the project would be showcased as it was.
Ms al Qassim said she was still unsure of what type of career she would pursue after she graduated in 2012, but she said she had not ruled out a future at Nasa.
"What I have learned there I can apply to so many things, whether it is monitoring earthquakes or designing operating systems for a computer," she said. "In any type of engineering, even for computers, remote sensing is very relevant for processing information."