The 2017 Data Science Innovation Lab Story

Training Tomorrow’s Leaders in Big Data
Annual Innovation Lab fosters collaboration among biomedical researchers and hones data science skills

NIH has breathed new life into the term “big data” in recent years, committing nearly $700 million to facilitate the sharing, analysis and understanding of biomedical research data through its Big Data 2 Knowledge (BD2K) program.

With a deluge of clinical, imaging, genetics, and behavioral data now publicly available, investigators must learn to effectively parse the information in order to maximize its potential. One key part of the BD2K initiative, the Training Coordinating Center (TCC), has risen to the challenge of educating biomedical researchers who wish to sharpen their data science skills.

Exploring the microbiome: Director Jack Van Horn welcomes researchers to the workshop and discusses expected outcomes for the Microbiome Innovation Lab. Photo / Crystal Stewart
“Training the next generation of investigators of course requires that they’re given the best tools and experiences,” said Arthur Toga, director of USC’s Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute. “But on top of that, cross-disciplinary partnerships are essential to their success.”

Led by associate professor of neurology Jack Van Horn , and housed at the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, the TCC offers a series of online training modules and seminars.

“We’re training the next generation of scientists in data science techniques and technologies,” said Van Horn of the program. “They need to be prepared early so that they know how to handle the ever-more data we’re going to collect.”

Resources range from a weekly virtual lecture series to Big Data Mini Movies, a collaboration with USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Meanwhile, the popular Educational Resource Discovery Index (ERuDIte) is a dynamic online catalogue that teaches data science concepts and adapts to the needs of the user.

TCC’s premiere seminar is the annual Innovation Lab, a one-week residential training workshop, which took place this June at the Wylie Inn and Conference Center in Beverly, Massachusetts. Thirty early-career researchers convened alongside six faculty mentors to explore new avenues with the aid of data science in their fields.

Getting acquainted: Gail Rosen (Drexel University) explains her research to fellow participants during Day 1 of the Innovation Lab. Photo / Crystal Stewart
Now in its third year, the Innovation Lab begins with a series of lectures and networking opportunities, and then encourages participants to form and work with interdisciplinary research teams throughout the week. When the workshop concludes, teams are encouraged to submit proposals to funding agencies, sustaining the impact of their collaborations.

2016's event in Lake Arrowhead, California focused on Mobile Health, including data obtained from wearable activity trackers and implanted devices. This year, attendees explored big data solutions for researching the human microbiome. This developing research area aims to promote health by understanding how humans interact with microbes, both within the body and externally.

Picasso in a bag: David Gonzalez (UC San Diego) and Arlene Chung (UNC Chapel Hill) enjoyed a team building exercise called “Picasso in a bag,” during which participants create blind sketches and mini-bios of one another. Photo / Crystal Stewart
To facilitate innovation on the microbiome, the selection committee assembled a diverse group of researchers to participate in the workshop. The fields represented included biostatistics, microbial informatics, community ecology, and molecular evolution, among others.

Faculty mentors also hailed from a variety of specializations and institutions: biostatistics professor Hongzhe Li and mathematics professor Charles Epstein, both from the University of Pennsylvania; Curtis Huttenhower, associate professor of computational biology and bioinformatics at Harvard; Katherine Kim, assistant professor of nursing at UC Davis; Pieter Dorrestein, professor of pharmacology at UC San Diego; and Kjersti Aargaard, professor at Baylor College of Medicine specializing in the microbiome and fetal development.

The diverse group of participants and mentors facilitated a rich interdisciplinary learning environment throughout the workshop, representing a key tenet of the center’s mission as well as NIH’s effort to promote Data Science within the community.

— Zara Abrahms