Camras Scholar Ali Mahmoud Performs Research on Data Visualization of Genetic Distances

Ali Mahmoud, from Burbank, Illinois, has always been fascinated with the potential that technology holds for the field of genetics and medicine. This passion led him to enroll in the bioinformatics undergraduate program, learning how to collect and use biological data for research. Now in his fourth year, he has been particularly interested in data visualization. Although bioinformatics algorithms exist that excel in raw analysis of data, the field lags behind in data visualization, as there is simply a lack of proper visualization tools. Mahmoud has been working to solve this problem as a research assistant in the lab of Jean-Francois Pombert, assistant professor of biology, and was able to continue his research this summer, supported by the College of Science Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend.

Pombert’s lab is dedicated to the study and analysis of genomics. Mahmoud’s research goal was to find an avenue of visualization that could be used on the project, “A Simple and Improved Pipeline to Assess Genetic Diversity Between Bacterial Genomes.” In doing so, he developed an elaborate method to show genetic distances, or the genetic divergence between species, using an unusual type of heat map display. This method ultimately fell short as it became clear that a high-density heat map could not possibly relay genetic distances in a way that could be interpreted by the human eye. Mahmoud then began exploring different avenues of visualization that have already been developed for other uses in the scientific community, to see if one would be suitable for this project. While he found a few that he believed would work, including Circos (Perl) and NetworkX (Python) data tools, he decided to focus his research on testing out R-based visualizations.

In addition to his research, Mahmoud is a Camras Scholar, treasurer of the Camras Scholarship Organization, and vice president of the Arab American Association for Engineers. He won first place at Arch Hacks Hackathon at Washington University in St. Louis last year for the health development app he co-created that obtains patients’ health data and transmits it to a live website, where it is analyzed and can be accessed by patients’ physicians. He also has tutored other students in computer science and biology in the Academic Resource Center.

Mahmoud hopes to go on to obtain an M.D. and a Ph.D. and perform human health-relevant research and he is confident that his research in Pombert’s lab is a crucial step in the right direction for his future. Pombert agrees that continued research is the right path for Mahmoud, and said, “The sheer ingenuity of Ali’s research is well beyond what is expected from an undergraduate. He is smart, enthusiastic about research, and his innate ability to think outside the box is a perfect match for research.”