Inspired by his quest to identify an African snake that Associate Professor of Biology Kate Jackson brought him in her Herpetology Lab class, Eric Hsu '17 built a new version of her online multi-access snake identification key.
Originally created by Willie Kunkel '09 and later updated by Nat Clarke '11, the key is based on the book Snakes of Western and Central Africa by Jackson and Jean-Philippe Chippaux (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming) and aids in identifying 62 genera of snakes across 248 species and 26 African countries.
Jackson said she gave Hsu the snake "just for fun." While Hsu did not succeed in identifying the snake's genus using the existing version of the key, "he did discover several flaws in the underlying code."
In addition to coding problems, operating systems would soon stop offering support for the Java on which the key depended.
"Eric thought it was ironic that a single-access key printed on paper in 1850 could still be usable today, while a multi-access key could become obsolete in a couple of years just because of its dependence on technology," said Jackson. "So he set out to make a version of the key using simple, versatile, globally-accessible software, as a protection against software obsolescence."
The new version is only 212 KB and was built using spreadsheet software. This "makes it much more usable in the developing world, such as West and Central Africa," Jackson added, and it can be used with standard Microsoft or open-source software.
"Working with Kate was a great insight and help for me to find what I wanted to do," Hsu said. "I've always had a fascination with reptiles, so even before taking my first class during freshman year, I went and introduced myself to Kate."
Biology major Hsu was Jackson's research assistant starting in his second semester freshman year. As he spent time cataloging snake locations in Western and Central Africa, he saw the potential for multi-access keys to improve upon traditional dichotomous keys—which use a sequence of A or B questions that eventually leads to a species determination.
What most inspires Jackson is that all of her research students "ends up taking it in a unique direction dictated by their own talents and ideas, so that it becomes more than I could have anticipated at the outset."
Hsu hopes to fuse his interest in biology and software development: "Before I continue working in biology, I want to flesh out my knowledge in computer science, so that I may eventually pursue a career creating scientific software."