April 8, 2016  

Purdue offers short course on 'big data' to biomedical researchers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A new short course in how to use big data led by Purdue University experts is available to biomedical scientists in the Midwest.

The two-week workshop "Big Data Training for Translational Omics Research," is offered July 11-22 on Purdue's West Lafayette campus. Tuition, housing and meals are provided for participants, and travel grants are also available. Applications to participate may be completed online at http://www.stat.purdue.edu/bigtap/. The workshop is open to faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

The National Institutes of Health funded the creation of the course through a $479,465 grant from the Big Data to Knowledge initiative to increase the use of big data by biomedical researchers and to advance understanding of human health and disease.

The goals of the entry-level course are to raise awareness of the value of big data in biomedical research, build basic competency in the use of established tools and public databases, and enable participants to effectively communicate with data scientists who can assist in research projects, said Min Zhang, the associate professor of statistics who led the team that created the course.

"Massive amounts of rich information about categories of molecules such as genes and proteins - the basis for 'omics' research - have been generated and stored in repositories, but a lack of understanding in the biomedical field of how to best use this type of complex data has kept talented researchers from tapping its potential," Zhang said. "There is a recognized need to complement the skills of the growing biomedical workforce with additional training in big data use."

Zhang collaborated with James Fleet, distinguished professor of nutrition science; Wanqing Liu, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology; and Pete Pascuzzi, assistant professor of libraries, to create the pilot course.

"There is so much valuable information hiding in the piles of big data that are already in public databases," Fleet said. "People have been focused on data generation, but now the utilization of this data is key. We want to encourage and equip scientists to use it. Today only a small number of biomedical researchers use big data, but that needs to become the norm in order to reach our goals of prevention and treatment for the most devastating diseases."

Over the last few years, the use of big data has made many breakthroughs in biomedical research, from genome-wide association studies that have identified genetic loci that confer risk for diseases, to the mapping of mutation landscapes across various cancer genomes that has paved the way for personalized cancer treatment and precision drug discovery, he said.

The workshop will involve hands-on work, case studies and lectures from experts. It will guide participants through the type of research questions that can be asked of big data and where to access available tools to interface with the data. Another important component will be sharing the vocabulary and terms to work with data science experts to establish powerful research teams, Liu said.

"It is very important to connect data scientists and biomedical researchers," Liu said. "The biomedical researchers know the questions that will lead to an impact and improvement in human health. Big data is a powerful tool, but it needs the direction of those in the life sciences. As many have said, integration of different disciplines and expertise is the future of successful research."

STEM leadership and increasing the number of people who have the skills to analyze and gain insights from "big data" is part of the Purdue Moves initiative. The initiative is designed to broaden the university's global impact and enhance student educational opportunities. Purdue Moves priorities fit into four broad categories: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) leadership; world-changing research; transformative education; and affordability and accessibility. 

Writer: Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu 

Sources: Min Zhang, 765-496-7921, minzhang@purdue.edu

James Fleet, 765-494-0302, fleet@purdue.edu

Wanqing Liu, 765-494-1414, liu781@purdue.edu

Pete Pascuzzi, 765-494-3620, ppascuzz@purdue.edu 

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