Rachel Brady: New Tools for Understanding

She's made a career out of visualizing data.

Produced by: Monte Basgall, senior science writer, Duke News and Communications.

“My passion is scientific visualization,” says Rachael Brady, “not just the visual rendering of it but everything that leads up to it, starting with the raw data. What I’m really interested in is how technology — visualization in particular — can help people understand their data.”

Rachael Brady

Brady pursues that passion inside one of the most spectacular pieces of technology on the Duke campus, a cube 3 meters per side inside the Fitzpatrick Building that displays images on all of its walls, as well as its ceiling and floor. Six computers coordinate the images that surround Brady and other researchers who work inside this luminous cube, called Duke’s Immersive Virtual Environment, or DiVE.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the DiVE is designed to create illusory 3-dimensional environments — with touches of “Star Trek’s” holodeck — for research and education.

With an operator in command behind the figurative curtain of a Wizard of Oz control room, students, professors and visitors can don 3-D glasses, enter DiVE’s chamber of wonders and be surrounded by projected images of molecules, virtual brains, simulated forests or visions of the Greek underworld. They can interact with all of these using a hand-held, wireless computer mouse.

Brady came to Duke in 2001 from the University of Illinois, arriving after her husband David Brady, who works in the Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics. A research scientist whose Duke affiliations span engineering, computer science and visual studies, she directs Pratt’s Visualization Technology Group, which designed, built and operates the DiVE. The group also sponsors activities aimed at building a campus-wide community of visualization experts.

A woman with eclectic interests, Brady encourages students and faculty from both the arts and sciences to incorporate virtual reality and visualization in their work. One 2006 event, called MIXTAPEStry, featured simultaneous interactive performances with a hip-hop theme at Duke’s Fitzpatrick Building and the University of Illinois’ Krannert Art Museum.

Brady said her own talent for mathematics, which led to a bachelors degree in mathematics and physics at Macalester College and a masters degree in statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, set the stage for her current work.

During post-graduate jobs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and National Center for Supercomputing Applications, she also developed a talent for writing algorithms and manipulating research information to be more meaningful.

I believe it in my soul that there are better ways to interact with computer representations of data. And I want to get there.”