Two graduate students in the College of Engineering have been recognized by the Virginia Tech Graduate School for their exemplary work inside and outside the classroom.

Mohannad Elhamod in computer science and Alli Rossi-Alvarez in industrial and systems engineering both received the 2023 Graduate Student of the Year award. This award recognizes students for their character, service, outstanding contributions, and academic achievements. 

In addition to sharing a connection to engineering, Elhamod and Rossi-Alvarez also share an interest in Latin dance. The two participate in SalsaTech, a Virginia Tech club devoted to teaching dances such as the bachata and merengue as well as celebrating Latin music and culture.

Mohannad Elhamod

Elhamod, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Computer Science, has been at Virginia Tech since 2019. He completed his Master of Engineering in electrical and computer engineering at McGill University in Montreal in 2012 and his Bachelor of Science in computer engineering at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Jordan in 2007.  

Today, his transdisciplinary research rests at the intersection of machine learning and scientific discovery in several domains, such as physics and biology.  

“In my research, I work on bridging the gap between machine learning approaches and scientific knowledge, and ensuring that machine learning models, which have pervaded all aspects of life, do not violate prior scientific knowledge established by domain experts,” said Elhamod.  

Elhamod’s efforts in this area serve to safeguard the integration of machine learning (ML) into science and society. Because machine learning is data driven, it is susceptible to imperfections in the data, such as bias and scarcity. This can negatively affect performance and severely impact people's lives by leading to grave errors, such as the promotion of unsafe cancer treatment, security hacking, and the perpetuation of racist and discriminatory behavior.

“My research helps lift the veil off these ‘black-box’ ML models and make them interpretable, which allows us humans to understand these models, and gives us a vantage point from which we can assess their decision-making and ‘fix’ them if necessary,” said Elhamod.

As an undergraduate, Elhamod was intrigued by the “magic” behind the emerging phenomenon of artificial intelligence and sought to understand how it worked. Coupled with his passion for science, he pursued a deeper engagement in the field of machine learning and sought to explore the ways in which the fields may reciprocally contribute and apply to each other.  

This abiding curiosity led Elhamod to the lab of Assistant Professor Anuj Karpatne at Virginia Tech and into Karpatne’s exciting vision of “science-guided machine learning.”

“Professor Karpatne has had a huge impact on my academic career, and I always say I could not have picked a better advisor if I tried. He is kind, patient, and gracious and has always insisted on creating a friendly, respectful, and stress-free environment in our lab,” said Elhamod.

During his time at Virginia Tech, Elhamod served as a delegate at the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and was elected twice to the board of the Computer Science Graduate Council. A fellow of Virginia Tech’s Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellency, Elhamod started and hosted “The Ranting Pedagogue” podcast, which touches on graduate life in general and teaching and pedagogy more specifically.  

A Pratt Fellowship recipient in 2021 and 2022 and Wake Award finalist from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in 2020, Elhamod will soon begin a clinical faculty position at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, where he will teach data analytics and machine learning classes while continuing to pursue his research interests.  

Alli Rossi-Alvarez

Rossi-Alvarez successfully defended her Ph.D. in industrial systems and engineering in December and will graduate this spring. Her research focuses on cognitive engineering and human factors of transportation safety. 

From a young age, Rossi-Alvarez knew she wanted to be an engineer. Technology competitions from middle and high school led her to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in human factors psychology and human factors systems, respectively. Upon graduation, Rossi-Alvarez started her career as a human-centered design associate for Lextant in Columbus, Ohio.

Though she was nearly 300 miles from Blacksburg, she was quickly surrounded by Hokies. The CEO and a handful of her co-workers were alumni of the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE). When Rossi-Alvarez made the decision to apply to graduate school, Virginia Tech was at the top of her list. “Once I learned more about the ISE program and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

Her research in pedestrian safety stemmed from a traffic accident in 2019, when Rossi-Alvarez was on a trip to New Orleans. While using a crosswalk, she was struck by an impaired driver. With the support of her advisor, Associate Professor Charlie Klauer, she adjusted her scope of research to focus on preventing similar incidents.  

“Alli was able to weave and integrate some of her personal experiences into her dissertation research to make a really profound impact on pedestrian safety,” Klauer said. “She spent quite a bit of time deciding what she wanted to research. Once she knew, off she went. She has amazing initiative.”

Rossi-Alvarez’s research was twofold: investigating the way pedestrians interact with both manually driven and automated vehicles and how applying different types of human-machine interfaces to vehicles helps pedestrians make more informed decisions.

“We are currently living in a time period with the most advanced safety technologies in vehicles and roadways, and still, we see pedestrian fatality rates skyrocketing,” Rossi-Alvarez said. “If this research can help save even one person’s life, that’s a win.”

During her time at Virginia Tech, Rossi-Alvarez participated in multiple student organizations and societies, including the Virginia Tech Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity, the Women’s Alliance Caucus, Women in Transportation Seminar, Women in Industrial and Systems Engineering Society, Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, and Alpha Pi Mu.

Rossi-Alvarez credits her support system for this award, including her parents, who held her to a promise she made as a child. 

“I told my parents when I was maybe 5 or 6 that one day, they would call me Dr. Rossi,” she said. “When I was hesitant to leave my job and apply to graduate school, my dad kept asking me, ‘When are you going to make your dream come true?’”

After graduating, Rossi-Alvarez plans to work in the automotive industry as a federal employee.

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