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Visualize This

Center for Scientific VisualizationThe new Center for Scientific Visualization is giving researchers across multiple disciplines at Tufts innovative visions.


It's one thing to study surgical procedures in a textbook, or read about various types of fluid flow in a reservoir. But what about literally walking through a colon, examining the tissue around you? Or traveling below the surface of the earth to examine the water flow first hand?

While those options may not be feasible, researchers at Tufts can now do the next best thing. With the new Center for Scientific Visualization, virtually immersing one's self in a realistic, data-rich environment is now possible.

The VisWall, as its users call it, was funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Program in 2006. But the process began through a series of general interest faculty meetings a year or two before that point, where researchers across campus who deal with high performance computation, in both the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering, began talking about the need for a visualization facility.

"Tufts is becoming a very attractive place to do that kind of work," says Bruce Boghosian, chair of the mathematics department and principal investigator on the grant. While Tufts was strong in computational capability, visualization was identified as an area where growth was needed.

"That's actually an advantage that I think Tufts has, its ability to do interdisciplinary work... At this university, the barriers are low to cooperation and collaboration among faculty from different departments."

— Bruce Boghosian

The VisWall, located at the School of Engineering in Anderson Hall, features a high-resolution display wall that utilizes rear projection in order to enhance the amount of detail that is visible to the eye.

Boghosian believes that the interdisciplinary nature of the proposal definitely boosted their prospects. Aside from co-principal investigators Robert Jacob, professor of computer science, and Mely Tynan, chief information officer and vice president of information technology at Tufts, other personnel named in the grant application were Assistant Professor Laurie Baise of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Assistant Professor Carolyn Cao of mechanical Engineering, Sarah Frisken, professor of computer science, Misha Kilmer, professor of mathematics, Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical Engineering, Diane Souvaine, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science, and David Kahle, director of academic technology.

"That's actually an advantage that I think Tufts has, its ability to do interdisciplinary work," says Boghosian. "It's fairly easy to get to know faculty across the university and to find interests that are similar to yours in other departments. At this university, the barriers are low to cooperation and collaboration among faculty from different departments."

Center for Scientific Visualization Center for Scientific Visualization

Bruce Boghosian and Mely Tynan.

And the collaboration is more than academic. By working with University Information Technology (UIT), the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering were able to facilitate the construction, implementation and ongoing support of the VisWall. A new UIT staffer, Lionel Zupan, was brought on as associate director for research technology to help coordinate use of the facility.

"One of the things that was really gratifying was to see the way people came together across different structures at Tufts, once we had funding for the equipment, to make this happen," says Boghosian.

"The reason why UIT is supporting it as heavily as we are is because it is not for one department and one professor," explains Tynan. "The one wonderful thing about Bruce is he put on his university hat and said, 'The more people who take advantage of this, the grander the vision and the outcomes are going to be.'"

A 'Magic School Bus'

While visualization has been around for several years, Tynan says that this facility takes it to the next level, offering the highest caliber of resolution in New England and, possibly, the United States.

"It's almost like we're handing our students and faculty their own magic school bus," she says. "Through this, you can really create and navigate and traverse from the expanded universe down to the atomic, molecular level, so that's really a very powerful tool for learning and understanding complex interactions and variables."

"You feel like you're entering another world," adds Boghosian. "You're really immersed in your data." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications. Video by Tufts Educational Media Center.

Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography

This story originally ran on Feb. 18, 2008.