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Moving science forward by imaging data

Scientific Computing and Imaging (SCI) Institute celebrates 30 years of supporting research at the U.

It started with an audacious idea. Create a realistic computer model to study the electrical current flow in the human thorax emanating from the heart’s electrical activity. Three decades later, the Scientific Computing and Imaging (or SCI) Institute is considered a world leader in visualization and high-performance computing research whose presence has helped propel the University of Utah’s rise as a premier research institution.

A visualization of a mouse paw. Banner image: A topological analysis of combustion.

The SCI Institute is celebrating its 30th anniversary on April 24-25 with several public presentations, keynotes and panels at the Warnock Engineering Building and the U Alumni House.

The seeds for what became SCI (pronounced like the sport Utah is famous for) were planted by a couple of shaggy-haired junior faculty members with a common passion for cycling and an exquisite eye for thinking outside the boxes that can constrain academic inquiry.

Rob MacLeod and Chris Johnson were both working with the Cardiovascular Research and Training Institute, known as CVRTI, in the early 1990s when they began knocking on campus doors in search of computer equipment and expertise to help make sense of cardiac electrophysiology data their team was handling.

“We were kind of this weird little island among all these traditional experimental scientists and clinicians who were treating this problem in the ways appropriate for the time,” MacLeod recalled, “but they could not really imagine why a computer would be useful for them.”

The young researchers needed to run simulations but did not have the necessary equipment.

Rob MacLeod

“So we marched down to the computer center, which was in the basement of the Park Building back at that time, and said, ‘We want to use your computers,’” MacLeod continued. “And they looked at us sort of down their noses and said, ‘So who are you? What is it you want to do with these computers?’”

With support hard to come by, they had to improvise and, more importantly, network with people outside their department. They found the help they needed in the mathematics and computer science departments and thus began a string of collaborations that led to the establishment in 1994 of the federally funded research group that evolved into the SCI Institute.

Data and computation are now essential to many innovations and discoveries in science, engineering, medicine, business and the humanities, according to SCI Institute director Manish Parashar, a professor of computer science.

“SCI has a tremendous history of using computation and data to address scientifically and societally important problems in a multidisciplinary way,” he said. “How do you bring different disciplines together to make, not only foundational but the translational innovations that can have an impact on a wide range of areas? That DNA is what we are building on.”

Manish Parashar

Today, its core pursuits are data visualization, image analysis and scientific and biomedical computing, employing at least 20 tenure-track faculty, drawn from the Kahlert School of Computing and departments of Biomedical Engineering, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“What we were trying to do was extremely interdisciplinary, and it took backgrounds in biology and medicine and physiology and computer science and physics, biophysics, all of these different disciplines in order to accomplish our goals,” Johnson said. “Most researchers are, like track athletes, specialists in the 100-meter run or the pole vault or whatever. But it really felt like we were the decathletes.”

Johnson arrived at the U. from Westminster College, where he was an assistant professor of physics, while MacLeod, a native of Canada, arrived with degrees in physics, electrical engineering, and physiology.

“I came to Utah in 1990 as a post-doc, met Chris, and we have been causing trouble ever since.” This is how MacLeod summarizes it on his faculty page.

Technically, MacLeod is now a professor of biomedical engineering and Johnson a distinguished professor of computer science, but their cross-appointments today span much of the U campus, highlighting the deeply transdisciplinary nature of SCI’s work, which looks to bridge the siloes that often isolate and limit lines of scientific inquiry.

Chris Johnson

Johnson and MacLeod would go on to lead the institute in varying capacities over the years. In the early days, they recruited key people to develop the institute, such as professors Ross Whitaker and Chuck Hansen, experts in image analysis and visualization. They also enjoyed crucial institutional support from Dave Pershing, then dean of the College of Engineering. A professor of chemical engineering who later served as the U provost and president, refers to SCI as one of the U “crown jewels,” on par with the Huntsman Cancer Institute or Moran Eye Institute

“SCI was a big experiment in the beginning,” he told an interview in 2016 for the institute’s history. “One of the things we learned was that it’s very hard to do interdisciplinary research. And the people who are trying to do that need special support.”

Pershing’s own research into combustion benefited from the institute’s expertise. SCI simulations helped his Center for the Simulation of Accidental Fires and Explosions, better known as C-SAFE, figure out how explosive materials behave when they escape safe containment—without actually releasing anything dangerous.

Pershing, MacLeod and Johnson are featured speakers on a panel on April 25 discussing SCI’s legacy.

Leveraging the U’s long-standing strengths in computer graphics, SCI became best known for data visualization.

“We work with scientists, engineers and people in medicine and many other fields to take large amounts of data, often arranged with complicated geometries, and try to figure out mappings and abstractions that will take that data and make it into something that our visual system can understand,” Johnson said. “Our brains are more than 50% devoted towards image processing. We’re very visual creatures. So if we can find effective ways of abstracting and mapping that data, then that’s a good way for us to understand these concepts and data.”

The resulting images, such as visualizations of fluid dynamics, bioelectrical activity, and combustion simulations, are so compelling they qualify as works of art. The Kimball Arts Center even curated some into a 2012 show at its Park City gallery for an exhibit titled “Art of Science.”

With Parashar at the helm, the institute looks to focus attention on artificial intelligence under the U’s new Responsible AI initiative, launched last year to develop this transformational technology, but remain mindful of its potentially adverse social, economic and environmental consequences.

“We are building on that DNA of multidisciplinary teams working on important problems, leveraging computation data,” he said. “How do we build on that core strength to include teams from across the university? Not just the sciences, but medicine and humanities and social sciences and policy and law and education, bring them together to leverage AI to address scientific and societally important problems that are specifically relevant to an Intermountain West region, such as mental health, air quality and the teaching and learning needed to build a new workforce.”