Gloria Kang and Huthaifa Ashqar recently earned doctorates from Virginia Tech in totally different fields, but they have something in common — cross-disciplinary training to solve today's tough urban challenges.

Kang and Ashqar are the first graduates of the National Science Foundation-sponsored urban computing certificate program. Both are planning to walk at the December commencement ceremony in Blacksburg.

Administered through the Discovery Analytics Center, the program trains students across disciplines in the latest methods in analyzing massive datasets to study key issues concerning urban populations.

Kang earned her Ph.D. in biomedical and veterinary sciences from the Department of Population Health Sciences in July. Her Ph.D. research focused on computational epidemiology and modeling infectious diseases to inform public health policy. Her work led to a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship at the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, a position she has held since August.

Kang said that her unit’s responsibilities are largely determined by demand from other CDC units; U.S. government agencies; and local, state, and international public health offices, but the overall goal is to deliver information of immediate and practical use to public health officials during emergency outbreak situations.

“I feel most prepared for the role of public health scientist because of the opportunity I had in the UrbComp program to improve my ability to synthesize research, practice, and policy,” said Kang. "The program has greatly enhanced my understanding of data science and the interdisciplinary methods necessary to tackle complex problems like the ones affecting population health today."

The experience of working on group projects is also key to her day to day work, she said. 

“Collaborating with people from various backgrounds with completely different skillsets is a rare and unique opportunity for most students. But, because it is crucial in translating science into real-world applications, it is just as necessary as training one's technical skills,” Kang said. 

Kang said that as opportunities allow, she would like to extend her professional experience to include NGOs, nonprofits, and industries involved with population health research. 

Kang earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science and a master’s degree in public health, both also from Virginia Tech. 

Ashqar earned his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in September. Ashqar, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine, and a master’s degree in road infrastructure from the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal, said he was drawn to Virginia Tech because of the university’s excellent reputation in preparing the next generation of innovative engineers.  

His research as a Ph.D. student focused on intelligent transportation system, a key ingredient of sustainable urban development.  

“In the next few decades, many traditional cities will turn into greener, safer, and faster smart cities, a transformation supported by recent advances in information and communication technology, a fast spreading internet of things, and big data analytics,” said Ashqar. 

 “The UrbComp program was a great asset, helping me to better understand and find innovative solutions to problems like traffic congestion,” he said. “I learned to apply data science and integrate horizontal knowledge of fields like computer science, math, and statistics with a vertical subject — in my case, transportation.” 

In his dissertation, Ashqar developed design components to support smart bike-sharing systems implementation for a smart city. These components could be used to boost redistribution operations, gain new insights into and correlations between bike demand and other factors, and support policymakers and operators in making good decisions applying a data-driven decision-making approach.

Since August, Ashqar has worked as a transportation systems engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., supporting the company’s transportation consulting business through proposal development and client delivery. The company, he said, is using emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and data analytics to provide novel solutions to intelligent transportation system. 

Ashqar’s long-term goal is to develop and implement innovative ideas that impact growth of intelligent transportation system and be a force for change in our communities and beyond.

The urban computing graduate certificate, open to all graduate students at Virginia Tech, is funded by a competitive award from the NSF National Research Traineeship (NRT) program. For more information about the Urban Computing certificate, contact Wanawsha Shalaby, program coordinator.

Written by Barbara L. Micale