Department of Geosciences

School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Faculty Profile: Mohamed Abdelsalam

Being able to travel to the far-flung corners of the Earth is enough of a draw for many. Being able to combine a love of painting and fine arts with earth studies was like a dream come true for Mohamed Abdelsalam, assistant professor of geosciences and a leader in remote sensing.

Abdelsalam’s interest in geosciences began in 1979 during his undergraduate studies at the University of Khartuom in the Sudan. That was the same year Chevron struck oil in the Sudan for the first time, he noted.

“At that time I discovered that the geosciences are not only about oil but also about our desire to understand how the Earth works. That was the eye-opener for me,” Abdelsalam explained.

His interest in structural geology emerged; maps drew him in further.

“I was fascinated by plotting maps in the field. I found that this is what really interests me in geosciences because of my background in free-hand drawing and painting.

“Being able to model, do field work, discover new things and at the same time interact with people with different cultural backgrounds was perfect for me. And I would rather be in this environment than work for an oil company,” Abdelsalam confessed.

Scratching the surface

Abdelsalam’s principal research interest focuses on the Arabian-Nubian Shield, an exposure of Precambrian crystalline rocks on the flanks of the Red Sea. The Precambrian is the period dating to the formation of the Earth.

 “The Arabian-Nubian Shield gives us a natural laboratory to study how the Earth’s lithosphere was operating in Precambrian times, which is a big question for geologists.

“The Arabian-Nubian Shield is a part of the continental crust in that region, which was formed between a thousand million years and 500 million years ago,” he said. “It has one of the best preserved pieces of oceanic rock from Precambrian oceans.

“The other thing is there is diversity of functional files. And these deposits formed when different rails, different blocks of the continent, collided with each other in order to unite and form the Arabian-Nubian Shield. To me and structural geologists it is becoming an obvious place to look at these structures and try to understand how pieces or blocks of the Earth’s lithosphere came together to form into what we are seeing now,” he said.

Abdelsalam, who received his doctorate from UTD in 1993, said he was drawn to the university by Professor Robert Stern, former head of the Department of Geosciences.

“Bob Stern is one of the most recognizable Precambrian geologists on the planet. He has made significant contributions to our understanding the Precambrian. He also supervised my dissertation and in many ways he has helped me,” Abdelsalam said.

In addition to the Precambrian, the two share an interest in continental drift and supercontinent cycle theory.

But the geosciences are not just about studying the past, but also about taking stabs at predicting the future.

“I can certainly tell you, for example, what would happen in 10 million years with the East African drift. A tectonic plate is now on the move and it might create an ocean one day. But that’s actually going to take somewhere in the range of 10 million to 20 million years. And to form this, part of Africa – the horn of Africa – will separate from the rest of Africa,” Abdelsalam said.

Supercontinent cycle theory describes the tendency of continental plates to come together over time and unite into a huge single continent – hence the term supercontinent – and then after that they break up again and form different continents and then they come together again. “It’s happened in the Earth’s history a few times. And there is actual documentation of these supercontinents,” Abdelsalam said.

"Remote Sensing is the art, science and technology of remotely acquiring information on the Earth’s four spheres – lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere – using different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and visible light and digitally processing the information to extract biophysical information from a target or phenomenon."

Remote Sensing

All of which neatly brings us to remote sensing, a technique used to observe and chart such phenomena. Abdelsalam is the director of UTD’s Remote Sensing Laboratory.

“Remote sensing has a number of activities, from data acquisition, to selecting which portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to use to analyze it, to digitally processing the data or visually assessing them.

“Ultimately you’ll be looking at studying a target, which is something that is static, or you can use remote sensing over time to study a phenomenon. Take the cross-section of urban area through time or the cycle of vegetation or the movement of clouds on the atmosphere. These are more than just a steady target, these are very dynamic,” Abdelsalam said.

“I started actually doing remote sensing work in the early ‘90s – actually that was 1994, 1995 – at UTD. At that time, the Remote Sensing Lab consisted of a single Sony station terminal," he said.

At that point, two things happened. Abdelsalam visited other remote sensing labs, which inspired him to ask the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for money to expand UTD’s Remote Sensing Lab.

The result was to place the Remote Sensing Lab in the Founders Building.

“We started with 750 square feet. We added three Sony stations – as well as adding three Macintosh stations – a slide maker, a Kodak printer and, of course, the software. By 1997 we had a decent Remote Sensing Lab. As a matter of fact, our lab was cited by NASA as one of 75 centers for excellence in environmental remote sensing,” he points out proudly.

The Remote Sensing Lab has since been through two more renovations. One was in 2001, which took the bulk of Abdelsalam’s sponsored money. He said he focused on adding Windows-based machines and acquiring the software “for digital image processing and vector data – all to expose us to different ways of doing things,” he said.

“We are now looking at expanding even more by combining the Remote Sensing Lab in Founders with the general-use computer lab to make it 1,500 square feet. That’s due, in part, because of the high demand for research and teaching. Usually we get somewhere in the range of 20 students per year,” Abdelsalam said.

Offering advice

Another of Abdelsalam’s roles at the university is as graduate advisor.  

He supervises dissertations and helps guide graduate students as they pursue their degrees.

“My best advice is to remind students that it’s the scientific community that you are going to interact with later and you have to learn from this community now rather than just being at close supervision. I know this much but the community knows much, much more than me. And I believe this is also what supervision is about – to present the students with all the possible opportunities to interact with the community, visiting other universities and so forth,” Abdelsalam said. 

He also stresses the importance of publishing results in science.

“Your work will be evaluated by the community and if it is published that is acceptance of your results by the community and that can allow the community to benefit,” he said.

Professor, lab director and graduate advisor, Abdelsalam seems to have done everything in the name of geosciences.

“It is a profession that is very unique, in that you can find yourself and fairly enrich your life through your career.

“Enrich your life in that geosciences basically allow you to go and visit different places. You get to enjoy the fascination of discovering new things, giving you the opportunity to experience living at different ‘life standards,’ from being in a high-rise office in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to living in a rural area in the remotest part of Djibouti, where you have to really rely on yourself to get provisions, including water. That I really enjoy,” he said.

  • Updated: May 18, 2006