The world's most challenging problems are difficult because they are complex. 

Finding the best solutions requires mapping the intricate, interwoven effects of many diverging variables  and then developing a holistic understanding of the system. Computational visualization offers a way to present that complexity in a way that reveals invisible aspects of a process or problem, enabling insights that intelligently guide further research and analysis.

This detailed modeling and visualization has applications in every field of human endeavor, from understanding the expansion and collapse of entire civilizations to tracing intricate disease processes to exploring the hidden ecosystems around us. 

Incorporating computational visualization into the research process can also be a complex practice — one that requires a deep understanding of not only how high-performance computing systems work, but also how humans perceive visualized data to achieve a meaningful model from which insights can be drawn.

That’s where computational scientists come into play. These are experts in both research computing and the research process itself and work as active participants on research teams to help them leverage high-performance computing in their work.

Meet Ayat Mohammed

At Virginia Tech, researchers have access to several computational scientists through the Advanced Research Computing (ARC) group, including its newest member, Ayat Mohammed, who is back at ARC for a second time. 

A Virginia Tech alum, Mohammed first served as a graduate research assistant for ARC’s visualization team from 2014-17. Now, as a full-time computational scientist and visualization specialist, she brings with her a wealth of experience in scientific computing and visualization that crosses disciplinary and continental boundaries.

“Through my research in visualization I have sought to better understand the nature of human perception, and to apply what I have learned to design scientific and information visualization solutions for different research problems in the STEM field,” said Mohammed. 

“While each scientific visualization case requires a unique approach, applying the principles of human perception gleaned from my research allows me to integrate a common taxonomy that can be applied to different domains ranging from aerodynamics and biochemistry to wireless communication and remote sensing, to nuclear science and engineering, and much more.”

Attending Virginia Tech through VT-MENA 

Originally from Aswan, Egypt, Mohammed completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in scientific computing at Ain Shams University in Cairo, where she stayed on as a teaching assistant until she decided to pursue her Ph.D. She was accepted into the Virginia Tech Middle East and North Africa program (VT-MENA), an international outreach program offered by the College of Engineering from 2006-14. 

The program served to lower barriers for top international talent to conduct research and earn a graduate degree from Virginia Tech. Participants attended Alexandria University in Egypt for much of their coursework before coming to the Virginia Tech campus, thus reducing the time and expense required to study abroad. Typically, students would study in Egypt for at least two years, but circumstances changed for Mohammed’s cohort.  

“2011 was the height of the Arab Spring,” said Mohammed, referring to the political unrest that occurred in Egypt and several countries during the early 2010s. Travel between Cairo and Alexandria became precarious for Mohammed, and disruptions to internet access and other utilities needed for study were frequent. She ended up coming to Blacksburg a year early, moving here in January 2012.

Visualizing a career with ARC 

While adjusting to life in a new continent and parenting three young children, she continued her coursework in computer science. “It was a hard time for me, to be honest. I felt overwhelmed at school and at home. I had this scholarship from Egypt that was about to run out, and I needed to find a way to continue paying for my education,” said Mohammed.  

Her outlook grew brighter when she landed a research assistantship with ARC’s visualization group, led by Director of Visualization Nicholas Polys.

“Ayat stood out immediately as an insightful and capable student. She really wanted to see her work benefiting people and science in general. As she grew into more responsibilities and capabilities at ARC and presented more world-class innovations, it was clear she could make a positive visualization impact for any scientific domain,” said Polys.

“It was perfect,” said Mohammed. “I could use my experience dealing with data and at the same time learn more about the visualization aspect of high-performance computing and use the resources. But just as great was how at home I felt working with the ARC staff. I found my place there, and it was fun.”

Ayat Mohammed shares a poster presentation
Ayat Mohammed shares some of her research at the 2016 HPC Day event.

Over the next two years, Mohammed worked with Polys and other Virginia Tech researchers, helping them utilize visualization resources such as the CAVE/HyperCube, Web3D and the Visionarium for projects in areas ranging from molecular dynamic visualization to astronomy to the GeoVine tool for the Virginia Vineyards project to her own dissertation research

“Dr. Polys was so supportive as an advisor. I never had a problem discussing anything with him, and he encouraged me to attend conferences and summer boot camps to promote my research,” said Mohammed. She was a student volunteer at Supercomputing, a major conference in this field, and in 2016 her research was featured in the IEEE VR Conference Doctoral Consortium.

From ARC to TACC

After finishing her Ph.D. in 2017, Mohammed was offered a postdoctoral research position at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), one of the world’s most highly-regarded high-performance computing centers. There, she furthered her skills and experience on projects including: 

  • Developing a virtual reality module for the Intel OSPRay ray tracer which is used for ParaView, one of the most widely-used visualization platforms worldwide
  • Designing color maps for scientific visualization with artist and researcher Francesca Samsel and the well-known professor Colin Ware
  • Conducting visual data analytics for the Dell Medical School women’s health group headed by Kelly Gaither

“I did not want to leave Blacksburg,” said Mohammed. “But I’m glad I did, as it afforded me the opportunity to work with some top researchers in the U.S. in visualization and computer science. It was a huge step for me.”

Mohammed returned to Egypt for a few years, serving again on the faculty at Ain Shams University. There, she continued teaching and conducting research with the Ain Shams Virtual Hospital, helping to develop artificial intelligence and virtual reality tools used to serve patients beyond the walls of the brick-and-mortar hospital.

“I led several undergraduate students in creating new apps to improve patient care using AI,” Mohammed said. “One group developed the Arabic Virtual Doctor Assistant app, which offers individualized experience for patients’ triage and a virtual scribe for doctors. Another launched a Video Emotion Detection app, which analyzed video and audio data to recognize emotions in the patient's speech and return feedback about the patient’s mood.”  

In addition, Mohammed worked on visualization models to assess patients’ awareness of stroke events by predicting the relationship between their address and the time it took them to arrive at the hospital. She also served as the Egyptian “ambassador” for the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society.

Returning to Virginia Tech

In 2022, she reconnected with Polys while working on a proposal to the U.S.-Egypt Science and Technology Joint Fund related to her university projects. “He told me of the open computational scientist position, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is my dream job.’ So I applied.”

She got the job.

And once again, Mohammed feels right at home. “I like developing. I like teaching. I like research. At ARC, I can combine all three,” she said. 

One of Mohammed’s first tasks was to help revitalize ARC’s training program, which includes a series of workshops through Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies that are designed to help faculty and students learn about and begin using ARC’s computing resources in their research. 

“We have had such a program for a long time, but in recent years, we’ve not had the capacity to run these workshops as frequently as desired. But with Ayat’s help, we conducted a much expanded program in fall 2023, which included 12 workshops covering six different topic areas,” said Matt Brown, computational scientist for ARC. 

When working one on one with researchers, Mohammed is particularly interested in helping researchers integrate visualization into the research computing process in the early stages. “I use visualization as a means of doing the task, incorporating an understanding of how humans perceive different shapes, colors, and so on, and using that information to build algorithms that map it to the other data sets.” Simply put, “I put the human in the loop.”

Nic Polys and Ayat Mohammed
(From left) Nicholas Polys and Ayat Mohammed at the Division of IT summer picnic. Photo by Angela Correa for Virginia Tech.

Remaining active in outreach on the world stage

Since rejoining Virginia Tech, Mohammed has traveled to multiple conferences as a presenter, panelist, or honoree. In September, she was recognized at the 2023 Internet2 Technology Exchange as a recipient of the Internet2 Inclusivity (I2I) Scholarship, an award honoring outstanding women in education, research, and information technology. Mohammed is also on the organizing committee for the 2023 Web3D Conference.

More recently, she was invited to speak on the data lifecycle for artificial intelligence in digital health at a World Health Organization technical consultation exploring artificial intelligence (AI) and its implications for sexual and reproductive health care. “AI-driven telemedicine platforms can provide information, counseling, and support for those who may not have easy access to physical healthcare facilities.” said Mohammed. At the technical consultation, Mohammed said computational research in this area must address ethical concerns, including data privacy, bias, and cultural sensitivity.

Here at Virginia Tech, Mohammed is contributing the same level of passion, experience, and expertise to  students and faculty. And, as much as Mohammed is glad to be back at ARC and Virginia Tech, the ARC team has welcomed her return.

"We are thrilled to have Ayat back with ARC, both for her skills with visualization and for her great help reviving our training program. She arrived just in the nick of time to save the program from being tabled for this year. As a world recognized expert in her field, I look forward to great things in coming months,” said Dane Skow, associate vice president for research computing.

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