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Ghaleb Abdulla ('94, '98)

Alumnus Ghaleb Abdulla

Ghaleb Abdulla
Senior Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Class of ’94, ’98

I joined the Department of Computer Science in 1991 after escaping the Gulf War with my wife and two children. Virginia Tech was kind to accept me and allowed me to postpone the TOFEL exam until I came to the United States. After I achieved a 4.0 GPA average my first semester, the department dropped the TOFEL requirements. 

During my seven years in Blacksburg, I received my master’s and Ph.D. in computer science working with Dr. Ed Fox. I enjoyed my time at Virginia Tech and I am very proud of the education and my research. After graduating, I joined Dow Chemical and worked on data management and analysis projects. I then moved to the East Bay in California and joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a computer scientist in 2000. My wife worked as a substitute teacher and my kids attended University of California Berkeley. They both went on to pursue medicine. Virginia Tech once again became an important part of our life when our daughter attended Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke. My son, a graduate of  University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical School, is doing his fellowship in cardiology at the University of Texas at Houston and my daughter is a general surgery resident at Harbor UCLA medical center. The American dream cannot get better.

Since joining Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2000, I have embraced projects that depend on teamwork and data sharing. My tenure includes establishing partnerships with universities seeking the company’s expertise in HPC and large-scale data analysis. I supported approximate queries over large-scale simulation data sets for the AQSim project and helped design a multi-petabyte database for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project. I used machine learning (ML) to inspect and predict optics damage at the National Ignition Facility and leveraged data management and analytics to enhance HPC energy efficiency. Recently, I led a Cancer Registry of Norway project, developing personalized prevention and treatment strategies through pattern recognition, ML, and time-series statistical analysis of cervical cancer screening data. Today, I am the principal investigator of the Earth System Grid Federation—an international collaboration that manages a global climate database for more than 25,000 users on six continents.

How did the department equip you for the ‘real world’...

I was lucky to work with a team of faculty and students who had different skills and talents. This made me realize that solving challenging problems is not a single person job regardless of how talented or skillful an individual may be.

I also learned that in order to be successful, you need to have a helping attitude not just to your supervisors, but equally, if not more important, to your other teammates.

During my time at Virginia Tech, I was exposed to a breadth of research topics and I developed different tools for various applications. For example, I worked on digital libraries, web-caching systems, and modeling of streaming video delivery architectures in 1995, well before Netflix existed. We should have filed for a patent!

Being a Virginia Tech alumnus means...

Being part of the large Virginia Tech community empowers me, especially when I see and read the success stories of my friends and colleagues. I try to show my connection to Virginia Tech in different ways like wearing my Hokie T-shirt to BodyPump class, while giving a presentation, and during our department social events. Whenever I go on hikes or outside social gatherings with my Hokie gear, I can always find another Hokie, start a conversation, and share memories and experiences.

My fondest memories from my time in the department are...

I have many fun memories. I used to take my kids to the lab where we had two huge robot arms used for artificial intelligence research. The long nights I used to spend finishing a paper and running to FedEx to drop the hard copy for submission (I cannot believe we used to do that). Taking my family for walks across the Drillfield. Taking my kids to the Duck Pond on weekends. Deploying several “headless” DEC workstations in different closets to help collect network data and then monitoring them remotely to support my research. I miss those days.

I mentor because...

I was fortunate to have people who helped and mentored me. Knowledge, wisdom, and experiences are best passed to the new generation by one-on-one interaction and by providing a living example. For three years, I worked as the director of the Institute for Scientific Computing Research. When I interviewed for the job, one of my objectives was to create a data science mentoring program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This became my main focus during my three-year assignment. When I finished my assignment, the program was in its second year with 20 students working on interesting projects and training to become data scientists. Their time was divided between working on data science projects and taking classes in R, ML, Python, and other data science relevant classes. Working with students helps me get a fresh perspective on life; the world through their eyes is exciting, promising, and has so many opportunities. Good students are not only good learners, but you can learn from them and through interacting with them.

I knew I wanted to work with data when...

While completing my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech I started realizing the value of data. However, I didn’t realize its full potential until I started my first job. Over the years, I saw how data became the “gold” of this century. I am not just talking about business data, but science data from the climate, astronomy, high-energy physics, biomedical, electric, and power domains. Data provides us with insight and knowledge to make informed decisions. It is our best tool to understand the universe and conquer diseases such as cancer. Helping different science domains was my mission and it is not an easy task. Learning the language, requirements, tools of each domain is a big challenge, but it is very rewarding.