Turning codes into understandable images: Rendering and Visualization for Human-Centered Climate Solutions
Becoming a researcher is not always at the top of the list of possible desired professions at a young age. Simply because one does not have a clear idea of the working life of a researcher. Silvana Zechmeister went looking for a career after graduating from high school and found one in Visual Computing science.
Silvana Zechmeister did not expect to become a researcher. Today, she has been working for many years as part of the Integrated Simulations research group at VRVis and is involved in the development of the Visdom software in the area of visualization and rendering, which is used for flood and heavy rainfall simulation in over 75 Austrian municipalities and several European countries. In this way, she is making an important contribution to greater sustainability and better climate change adaptation. After all, thanks in part to her research and development work, the Visdom simulation tool offers vivid and intuitively understandable images and scenarios that convey at a glance the dangers and risks of extreme weather events such as heavy rain, flooding or slope water. At the same time, Visdom is also a sought-after digital tool for planning Sponge City or ecosystem-based measures for cities by illustrating stormwater drainage or façade and roof greening, which also makes life easier for planners thanks to Silvana Zechmeister's research work.
Before Silvana Zechmeister began her career as a researcher, she attended a BHS (High school) with a focus on tourism and event management. But while still in school, she noticed that the shoe didn't quite fit. To get an idea of new paths and training, she visited career fairs and various universities. She wanted to find something that appealed to her interest in creative work, visual design and her enthusiasm for animated films. She found what she was looking for in a bachelor's degree in media informatics at the Vienna University of Technology.
Studying technology: Jumping in together
The beginning was not easy, says Silvana Zechmeister. Starting at a technical university without having previously attended an HTL (Technically-oriented High School) was not easy and revealed the gaps in her general education in terms of technical knowledge. She had to learn programming from scratch. But Silvana Zechmeister knew how to help herself: Online courses, study groups, teamwork and good fellow students provided the important support network that helped her get through the challenging initial phase. Learning together, supporting each other, sharing resources such as transcripts, and cheering each other on is what makes for a collegial and productive atmosphere; it's no different in research, Silvana Zechmeister knows today.
An advertisement on the website of the Computer Graphics Institute drew Silvana Zechmeister's attention to the possibility of writing her bachelor's thesis at VRVis, Vienna's COMET Center for Virtual Reality and Visualization. COMET centers specialize in building bridges from research to industry - perfect for a bachelor's thesis with real-world application. In addition to the concrete application of hydrodynamic modeling, Silvana Zechmeister also liked the good supervision in the research group. She was not only taught know-how, but also got to know the processes of a science center like VRVis.
Get a taste of science with an internship
The positive experience of the bachelor thesis motivated her to do an internship right afterwards, in which she implemented a concrete project: For the visualization of evacuation scenarios, which can also be simulated with Visdom, Silvana Zechmeister modeled and animated little humans. It was the concrete benefit and added value of her contribution that appealed to Silvana Zechmeister right from the start. After all, rendering and visualization actively contribute to making the images that the computer outputs visually appealing and the user interface intuitively understandable for humans. This allows users to quickly orient themselves and better understand complex interrelationships - such as in an evacuation scenario in a large soccer stadium. Because as Silvana Zechmeister knows from her work: The person who sees, understands.
Taking off in research: thesis, publications and conferences
Silvana Zechmeister published her first scientific paper at CESG 2018 in Slovakia and received the IEEE Women in Engineering Best Student Paper Award for it. A confirmation of her outstanding research work and motivational help to keep at it. Other awards soon followed, such as the Siemens Award of Excellence or a sponsorship award from the Dr. Maria Schaumayer Foundation. In 2020, Silvana Zechmeister completed her master's degree in Visual Computing at the Vienna University of Technology, writing her diploma thesis at VRVis on "Interactive Visualization of Vector Data on Heightfields". Her work enables efficient visualization of vector data that can represent, for example, river lines, road and rail networks, and land use. Visualizing this data can provide an overview of which infrastructure is particularly affected by a simulated flood.
Silvana Zechmeister puts her creative skills to good use every day, be it in the visual design and modeling of urban scenes in which floods are simulated, or in the design of 3D visualizations that are intended to highlight flood risk factors and make them comprehensible. Analytical thinking in programming is not neglected either.
In research, teamwork and collaboration is important; working closely together to solve tricky problems on the whiteboard or over coffee in the break room is like professional puzzle solving. But drawing and designing with pixels remains Silvana Zechmeisters favorite aspect of the job.