Health researchers build bridges with Penn State’s new visualization wall

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Moriah Szpara, a biologist who investigates viral DNA, has been envisioning futuristic ways for researchers to visualize and explore large amounts of data. Much like the Star Trek holodeck, she believes scientists will eventually be able to use cyber tools to virtually “fly through their data,” summon 3-D images into existence, and expand, shrink and rearrange data sets at will.

Though such concepts may be a long way from what most researchers are able to do today, Penn State is already positioning its scientists to ride the crest of the latest video technology with the launch of a 7 feet by 13 feet visualization wall and an array of collaborative tools on the third floor of the Millennium Science Complex at University Park.

Funded by Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement (CURE) funds, the newly constructed suite and visualization wall is designed to support the mission of the Cyber Health Initiative at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences — a program that promotes the fusion of computational science and biomedical research. The new space — infused with vivid green, red and blue hues — offers two conference rooms, under-floor power and data-distribution (for easy servicing), workstations, energy-efficient air handling and lighting systems, a video conferencing area and the integrated, 16-tile visualization wall.

Szpara, an infectious disease expert who has already begun using the visualization wall to teach her graduate students, explains that large-scale illustration has become increasingly essential to biology and genome teaching, and training today.

“Human beings have a brain that is extremely visual, so large, high-quality images stimulate our ability to comprehend large datasets and solve problems creatively,” she said. “Large-scale representations are an important step in our grasping the variations and subtleties in enormous data sets — as well as our moving toward solutions and flexible technologies that can interpret information in a visually resonating way. The visualization wall is bringing us closer to this total-immersion environment.”

Huddled in front of the wall in soft, colorful chairs, Szpara’s graduate students enthusiastically discuss images and data sequences on the visualization screen, sharing their understanding of the program's herpes simplex virus data and helping one another absorb the nuances of genomic research. Szpara, in turn, coaches them on how to detect important clues in the dizzying pattern of numbers — ensuring they notice the comparisons, variations and gaps in genetic sequences.

With businesses and institutions striving to help researchers visualize the increasingly large amounts of data today, an array of technologies are being developed to accomplish this goal through 3-D displays, “total immersion suites” and enormous data walls, boasting "NCIS"-like manipulatable screens and multiple-tiled displays.

In March, Penn State will add 32 touch-screen features to the Cyber Health wall, so users will be able to expand, contract and manipulate images and data (similar to a tablet) as needed. The flexible interface will also offer singular control of the wall or the option for multiple users to operate sections of it to contrast and compare data with one another. Still other features could eventually be be programmed into the wall to enable scientists to use hand-gestures to command the data, images and representations from a distance.

Wendy Buterbaugh, executive manager within the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences, said these efforts are essential in a world driven by numerically intensive computing and massive amounts of data.

“The Cyber Health Initiative is about marrying computing experts with scientists who are leading critical biology and social science initiatives — while providing collaborative technologies that can lead to breakthroughs like a lifesaving new type of vaccination,” she said. “Our aim is to offer these new tools to bring these goals to life.”

Experts are finding that interacting with data in unusual and innovative ways also helps to make it more memorable and collaborative for scholars and researchers. Given this knowledge, display designers are making it increasingly possible for their clients to collectively manipulate how the data and images are presented as they work together simultaneously.

According to Matt Ferrari — an assistant professor of biology, working to prevent the spread of measles in children around the globe — it can be time consuming and costly for scientists to individually examine and share how a disease is spreading through time and space geographically.

“A tool like the visualization wall eliminates the back and forth process of sharing data,” he said, “making it much more possible to predict and prevent an outbreak as we sit down together and pore over the many different variables — birth rates, death rates, vaccination doses, supply chain limitations and demographics — just to name a few."

Designing the right kind of visualization software to interpret the data is another key component, added Marylyn Ritchie, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and director of the Center for Systems Genomics.

Ritchie, who works with colleagues at the University of California, Davis to evaluate millions of data points (which can add up to several terabytes of data), is collaboratively assessing how genetic variation interacts with environmental influences on childhood autism, such as exposure to pollution, toxins, ozone, vitamins and nutrition.

“It’s incredible to have such a large volume of information we can analyze gathered in a single place. But the scale and magnitude of influences we’re dealing with requires something more sophisticated than spreadsheets to specialize in displaying relationships visually,” she stressed. “So we’re creating software that allows us to interact with gene structure and the data that emerge from this process.”

This visually translating software — that different groups are building for their own individual needs — may be the mother lode that brings scientists closer to the final frontier of "holodeck" possibilities for exploring big data.

"It may sound like science fiction," Ritchie added, "but this is really where we are today ... right on the forefront of experiencing total physical and visual data immersion.”

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