Visual Analytics Research Advanced by ARI Seed Funding

Visual Analytics Research Advanced by ARI Seed Funding

In the spring of 2014, the Illinois Applied Research Institute launched the inaugural edition of its seed funding program. 35 proposals were submitted by researchers and faculty from across the entire University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community. The selection of each of the eight projects that received seed funding from the ARI was made on the basis of its ability to lead to the development of future applied research programs in partnership with University of Illinois faculty.

Great advances in scientific understanding regularly occur on the University of Illinois campus and the ARI is looking to translate those ideas into scalable solutions to immediate and pressing problems.

One project has recently concluded. That project, “Visual Analytics Workflow for Identifying Microbiome-Phenotypic Relationships,” was led by Kelly Swanson, Professor of Animal and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois. Co-PI on the project was Colleen Bushell, who was Senior Research Programmer of Visual Analytics at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Mayo-Illinois Strategic Alliance for Technology-Based Healthcare. Dr. Bushell has recently joined the ARI as a Principal Research Engineer.

Collaborators included Michael Welge, a data research expert with the NCSA and the Institute for Genomic Biology, and Bryan White, Director of the Mayo-Illinois Strategic Alliance.

This project was designed to provide an inter-campus and interdisciplinary platform to collaborate on the development of new tools to study human and animal microbiome data in order to gain new understandings of disease and nutrition processes. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the important role that the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies have on our overall health. For example, some studies have found that the mix of bacteria that inhabit our guts may have a critical effect on obesity and diabetes.

According to Dr. Swanson, working with the ARI to fund his research project was a “very good experience.” He explained that the “ARI and our TPOC [ARI Director Jeff Binder and Research Scientist Dan Krogstad] were quick to respond to our questions and schedule meetings if and when they were needed, yet were not overbearing. We had an initial meeting just prior to project initiation and a summary meeting to discuss our progress and future directions and goals.”

Deliverables for this project included a software interface for exploring interactions of microbiome-host relationships and a white paper. Research findings were also presented at the Individualizing Medicine Conference at the Mayo Clinic in October, 2014.

The ARI seed funding helped propel this project forward. Dr. Swanson said that, “This funding helped us connect with the NCSA, which may lead to external funding in the future.”

And as for the interdisciplinary relationships that this seed funding project has fostered and what the future holds, Dr. Swanson explained that, “Other funding would allow us to move beyond the small studies we have focused on thus far and move on to larger more in-depth studies with more clinical relevance.”