Breaking Barriers in Science 

Sharing computer and science know-how drives the work of ICTP post-doc Mary-Jane Sule
Breaking Barriers in Science 
Sara Anzuinelli

ICTP is widely acknowledged as a reference point for the progression of knowledge in the physical and mathematical sciences. Year after year, this dynamic institution brings together thousands of scientists, from every corner of the world; it is a beacon of global scientific collaboration. Among its diverse community of researchers, Mary-Jane Sule, a postdoctoral fellow, has brought her unique perspective and expertise to the Information and Communication Technology Section (ICTS), which provides informatic services for the ICTP community and for scientific activities. 

Hailing from Nigeria, Sule embarked on an educational journey that took her through different places, from England to her current adventure here at ICTP in Trieste. As a postdoc in the field of computing and IT services, Sule is working on the deployment of scientific cloud computing resources. In particular, her focus lies in providing secure cloud-based desktop access via ICTP’s infrastructure, ensuring that scientists and participants, who are connecting remotely to ICTP activities, can benefit from this innovative approach. 

“I stepped into this role right around the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sule recounts. “Before the pandemic, the ICTP campus was a hub of in-person activities. However, with the advent of COVID-19, there was a rapid shift to the virtual realm. As I began my new role during the post-COVID period, a new challenge emerged: ICTP students and researchers were attending activities remotely from their homes, using their laptops to engage online and complete assignments.” This transition to online and hybrid programs posed a significant hurdle: participants were tasked with downloading and running applications, attending Zoom sessions, and even sharing their screens with instructors for troubleshooting. However, these demands were not easily met by all, as not everyone had the necessary resources at their disposal. Additionally, some of the applications sent for download were huge, leading to concerns about data consumption -- data limitation might be a pressing issue in different parts of the world. All of these challenges highlighted the disparities faced by participants in a digitally interconnected world that remains far from equal. 

“As I contemplated the challenges faced by participants, my attention turned to the available cloud resources within the ICTP computing infrastructure,” Sule reflects. “So, a question came up in my mind: how could we extend these resources to users, enhancing their online experiences?” The answer materialized when Sule imagined a way to grant users access to a cloud-based platform, enabling them to navigate their tasks easily. Specifically, the idea was to provide users with a virtual desktop environment within the cloud. 

These cloud-based desktops host the entire desktop environment -- including the operating system, applications, and user data -- on remote servers within the cloud. Users can access their personal desktops from various devices, such as laptops, tablets, or even smartphones, using an internet connection. When a user logs in to a cloud-based desktop, they are essentially connecting to a virtual machine running on a cloud server. This virtual machine mirrors the experience of using a physical computer; users can interact with the software, save files, and perform tasks just as they would on a traditional desktop. However, the main thing is that the processing power and resources needed to run the desktop are provided by the cloud server, which can lead to smoother performances, especially for users with less powerful devices.

“All that’s required is to log in to the designated cloud-based desktop. There’s no need to be worried about the availability of the resources on the user’s laptop. Essentially, your PC is just an interface, acting as a gateway to the expansive cloud-based environment,” says Sule.

Additionally, this cloud-based system redefines the communication between students and teachers. Students can now easily seek assistance when facing difficulties by simply sharing the URL of their cloud-based desktop with the instructor. The teacher can then log in and observe the student’s work, mirroring the traditional in-person classroom experience. “This creates a fair competitive environment, where all can participate and compete on a level playing field, thus opening doors for everyone to excel,” reveals Sule. “This enables students and researchers to carry out their own work without constraints.”

Sule’s work is focused on breaking barriers and creating an environment where all can chase their aspirations. This conviction permeates both her scientific research and her outreach initiatives. In her home country of Nigeria, Sule is actively involved in numerous science-themed outreach activities aimed at inspiring and engaging children. She firmly believes that everyone should be empowered to choose their life's path without limitations imposed by their country of origin or lack of exposure to certain subjects. Through these initiatives, she stimulates young minds with everyday-life activities, emphasizing the fact that science is everywhere around us and is universally accessible. 


Mary-Jane Sule in Nigeria
ICTP postdoc Mary-Jane Sule conducting an outreach activity for children in her home country of Nigeria.

“It's about ensuring that regardless of where you come from, you have an equal chance to explore what you love,” affirms Sule. 

Human potential should not be constrained by geographical or technological boundaries; this philosophy aligns perfectly with the mission embraced by ICTP. It is a vision for the future of science -- a world where we stand on equal ground. And where does Mary-Jane Sule envision herself in the future? “I’m uncertain of the exact place or country that will hold my future, but what I am sure of is that I will be happier and more fulfilled if I am providing services, being a helping hand to others, and giving my best. What truly matters is the ability to make a difference, regardless of where we stand.”

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