Tariq Al-Serhan ’21 spent his summer consumed by COVID-19.

The virus altered his plans in a multitude of ways: As an international student from Jordan, Al-Serhan was unable to go home for fear of being unable to return to Bethlehem for his senior year. As an Iacocca International Intern, he was unable to travel to Germany to conduct electrical engineering research.

Tariq Al-Serhan
Tariq Al-Serhan ’21 is working on a Mountaintop project this summer instead of interning in Germany as he originally planned.

While the pandemic prevented Al-Serhan from being able to participate in these experiences, it also enabled new opportunities.

After opting to postpone his Iacocca internship until summer 2021, Al-Serhan joined the Mountaintop Summer Experience, which is operating virtually this year. He joined the project titled Mathematical Modeling and Syndromic Surveillance of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, led by professors Thomas McAndrew, Hyunok Choi and Halcyon Skinner from the College of Health.

“We have five different models that forecast the pandemic given different sets of data,” Al-Serhan said. “The goal is to put all these models together to get the most accurate prediction of new cases over the next two months.”

Al-Serhan, a computer engineering major, was at first unfamiliar with how biostatistics worked to predict infectious disease. While he has gained an understanding through his work, his primary job on the project is to code the statistical models in order to create overarching predictions.

“To make it possible, it’s all coding,” Al-Serhan said. “That’s where I come in as a computer engineer. It’s my job to code it up.”

Al-Serhan works alongside 11 students as a paid fellow, which requires working extra hours and setting up coding tutorials to help coworkers. He is concurrently working on a separate research project focused on computer architecture with Xiaochen Guo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

This is not the first time Al-Serhan has used his computer engineering knowledge to track the progress of the disease. Before securing his position at Mountaintop, he had been working on a COVID-19 tracking website with friends from high school. They created the site during the beginning of the pandemic to track cases in Germany, where one of his friends lives.

The website functions to provide viewers with the probability of being in contact with at least one person infected with COVID-19 depending on the total number of people they have been around.

“I think it would be cool if you could see it for any big city,” Al-Serhan said. “If I walk by 50 people, what’s the probability of one of them being infected? What about 100 people? It’ll help people visualize the virus’s effects.”

Currently, the website provides data for increments from 50-500 people, but Al-Serhan’s next objective is to let people enter any number. He plans for the website to go live with data for the United States when the Mountaintop project slows down, which he presumes to be the end of the summer.

Though the projects are similar in the fact that they create models of the virus, Al-Serhan said that the Mountaintop project is more sophisticated than his personal project, given the fact that there are professors who work alongside and guide the students. Additionally, the larger size of the team helps with the organization, since everyone is responsible for a small part, Al-Serhan said. The Mountaintop project also has access to more accurate data.

Though summer coming to an end means the end of working as a Mountaintop fellow, Al-Serhan is looking forward to beginning his senior year and being an orientation leader in the fall.

While many details for the upcoming semester are unknown, Al-Serhan hopes he can provide the best possible orientation experience for first-year students, whether that be face-to-face or over Zoom.