17-Year-Old Leading Hunger and Poverty Prevention Strategies


TACOMA, Washington — Lillian Kay Petersen grew up around computers and in an environment that fostered global thinking. Petersen’s father, Mark, creates ocean models on supercomputers that anticipate ocean activity. This work is vital to understanding the natural impacts of all life on earth. The beginning of Petersen’s vital work started in fifth grade when she learned to code. Around that same time, her parents adopted three younger children. Her new siblings had been growing up in poverty-stricken communities and Petersen saw, firsthand, how poor nutrition caused health problems. Petersen also learned about the ongoing Ethiopian droughts that have put millions of people at risk year after year and governments have been unable to overcome the plight. She recognized these hunger and poverty issues on a global scale and was inspired to begin monitoring satellite images and establishing a means to aid hunger and poverty prevention efforts.

Petersen’s Multiple Solutions to End World Hunger and Poverty

In March 2019, as a student at Los Alamos High School in New Mexico, Petersen published her paper, “Supply Chain Optimization for Acute Malnutrition Treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa.” This paper details the inefficiencies in food distribution to Sub-Saharan African communities due to the supply chain and high tariffs. This mathematical model accurately estimates the costs for policymakers, nonprofits and organizations to disburse specialized nutritious food in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also a long-term goal—once the new guidelines have been established—to use more local food production and lower the distribution costs by 25%. “Used in conjunction, these tools could better inform policymakers on recipes and supply chains that reach more children with life-saving treatment… while supporting sustainable development and future food security in developing countries,” says Petersen in her paper.

Another published paper by Petersen is “Real-Time Prediction of Crop Yields From Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Relative Vegetation Health: A Continent-Wide Analysis of Africa.” This paper was published in November 2018 but updated in July 2020. In this model, Peterson used satellite images and developed a method to predict crop yields two to four months before the harvest. With her calculations, 40% of her predictions hand less than 5% errors.

Current methods include large teams of people working in the field and remotely without the ability to be as accurate as Petersen’s new method. In her paper, Petersen states, “The power of this system is its simplicity and versatility: it can predict crop yields anywhere in the world on any crop type, and it is practically free.” This approach has gained international consideration, leading organizations to use similar approaches in their hunger and poverty prevention initiatives.

Recognition is a Step Toward Implementing These Life Saving Concepts

Petersen has made quite an impression on the science and technology community at her relatively young age. Not only have her ideas been accepted by the community, but she has earned many awards to help her combat global hunger and poverty issues, such as:

  • In January 2019, Peterson won the Cameron Impact Scholarship. Only 15 high school seniors earn this scholarship each year. It is a four-year, full-tuition scholarship in recognition of outstanding academics, extracurricular activities, leadership and community service. Needless to say, Petersen exceeded all these qualities in her research and models for hunger and poverty prevention.
  • Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and the Society for Science & the Public announced 40 winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search in January 2020. This competition focuses on math and science. Peterson was the first-place recipient and received $250,000. “Students like Lillian Petersen are the stewards of our future. The current pandemic has made it clear how important science is to our well-being. With these finalists at the forefront of scientific and engineering discovery, I know we are in good hands. They will be solving the world’s most intractable problems,” says Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News and a 1985 Science Talent Search alumna.
  • Petersen also won the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in September 2020. This honor goes to the top 15 students focused on taking positive steps for the greater good. All the winners receive $15,000 as a scholarship or funding for continued work in their prestigious field. Barbara Ann Richman, executive director of the Barron Prize for Young Heroes said of Petersen, “She has the scientific mind, the humanitarian heart and the ability to communicate and bring people on board to her cause.”

Part of the Equation for a Bright Future for All

Petersen’s passion, analytical abilities, acceptance in the field and award-winning ingenuity have already made huge impacts on hunger and poverty prevention strategies. This is just the beginning as she starts classes as a freshman at Harvard. She is studying math, computer science and molecular biology in genetics. Her emphasis will be on applied math. “I enjoy computer programming and believe that statistical analysis of big data has a unique power to answer socially relevant questions,“ she states on her website.  Her ultimate goal is to save lives and with her contributions, humanitarian organizations will be one step closer to accomplishing hunger and poverty prevention actions.

—Heather Babka
Photo: Flickr


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