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Astronomy is rapidly becoming exponentially data rich, with data management, data exploration, and knowledge discovering becoming central to the research enterprise. This has brought about great opportunity for growth and discovery in both astronomy and computational science. It has also created many technical and methodological challenges. The emerging field of AstroInformatics provides a bridge between the scientific challenges that are associated with this rapid data volume growth and the inherent complexity of astronomy, engineering, computer science, and applied statistics.
This fascinating field was the subject of the AstroInformatics 2011 Conference (AI2011) held in Sorrento in September. The four-day conference attracted a broad community of astronomical, biomedical, computational, and educational professionals from around the world. An estimated 10 percent of the conference speakers presented via Skype, in keeping with the spirit of informatics. I’m proud to say that a number of representatives from the Earth, Energy, and Environment (E3) division of Microsoft Research Connections were active participants, both as attendees and presenters—including several keynotes.
Keynote by Dan Fay, director of E3 at Microsoft Research Connections, on “The Rise of X-Informatics.
Demonstrating Thought Leadership
The conference began with a keynote by Dan Fay, director of E3 at Microsoft Research Connections, on “The Rise of X-Informatics.” Dan’s presentation successfully guided the discussion throughout the event on engaging scientific research with advanced computing technologies such as WorldWide Telescope, Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer, and OData.Later, Jenn Lin, senior test lead, Microsoft Silverlight, presented “Interactive Visualization of Massive Datasets Using Microsoft PivotViewer.” During the session, Jenn demonstrated compelling examples of how PivotViewer, an interactive data visualization tool, can be used to visualize and facilitate discovery of hidden science in large datasets. Audience feedback to Jenn’s session was positive.
“We should really explore interactive visualization tools like this while doing our data mining,” commented visionary scientist George Djorgovski. Another attendee, May Wang, immediately began visualizing ways to integrate the tools into her own work. “My (biomedical informatics) research can really benefit from PivotViewer,” she noted.
Building a Better Scientist
On the final day of the conference, I had the honor of opening the Computational Education for Scientists Workshop with my keynote presentation, “Building a Better Scientist.” I should note that several of the researchers who attended AI2011 have been significant contributors to—and supporters of—the Microsoft Research Transform Science effort since 2007. They recognize not only the importance of interdisciplinary computing for sciences, but also the urgency of creating a generation of computationally empowered scientists. “Computational literacy and data literacy are critical for all,” said Kirk Borne, a professor at George Mason University.
The day’s presentations stimulated a passionate discussion within the audience. Many people expressed their great expectation for Microsoft to help create computational thinkers among young scientists. “‘Building a Better Scientist’ will be a reserved topic at the next AstroInformatics meeting,” said Professor Giuseppe Longo a professor at the University Federico II in Naples, Italy, and a co-founder of the annual AstroInformatics conference.
The grand finale of AI2011 was a half-day workshop on Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (WWT). A dozen local science educators from high schools and a regional science museum joined the session attendees for this fascinating workshop.
I began the workshop by introducing Microsoft Research’s twentieth anniversary and presented WWT as a showcase project. Next, I introduced Alyssa Goodman of Harvard University who presented “Seamless Astronomy Enabled by WWT,” in which she discussed research that we recently featured on Science@Microsoft (see WorldWide Telescope and Seamless Astronomy). Her enthusiasm for WWT was reflected in her presentation. “WWT has made it to the community beyond personal levels,” she said. Speaker Ed Valentijn demonstrated WWT and Kinect in his session, the aptly named “Demonstrating WWT Live to 5,700 Festival Visitors.” (“The same will happen in Italy soon,” noted Professor Longo.)
During an hour-long Q&A session, I demonstrated how easy it is to create an astonishing WWT tour by combining data and images in WWT, with additional presentation materials in almost any form: astronomical images, music, clip art, narrative audio, etc. The excited audience couldn’t help but discuss it amongst themselves (in Italian). Although I could understand only a little of their conversation, I knew that—once again—WWT had wowed the audience.
—Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections
As I read the Washington Post article by Anna Holmes entitled, “Technically, science will be less lonely for women when girls are spurred early,” I felt my heart grow heavy when I encountered the following quote from Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher: “We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’” Skaggs, who authored the June 2011 paper, “Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity with Gender Identity,” is also quoted as saying, “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.”
Exciting the imagination and potential of girls to pursue technical fields
I can’t believe that, in 2011, we still haven’t found a way to encourage girls to be confident in pursuing science, math, and technology courses in middle school and high school. I was in high school 20 years ago, and it never crossed my mind that I would not be popular, attractive, or boys would not like me because I was smart and took every advanced math and science course that was available. I was excited and pleased to let everyone in my high school know that I planned to be an engineer and attend one of the top 25 engineering schools in the country. Where have we, as a society, gone wrong when, 20 years later, we actually have fewer girls pursuing these fields?
I feel fortunate to be able to represent Microsoft as the company’s lead for Women in Research, Science, and Engineering. As I travel the world and meet with amazing researchers, I feel confident that we will solve this problem in the next decade. I would like to highlight a couple of projects that are taking on this challenge:
Encouraging women in the pursuit of computer science education is important to us at Microsoft Research. We offer support through the following two Microsoft Research Connections programs.
In the coming months, we will highlight projects and programs that Microsoft Research Connections will support to cultivate the next generation of women professionals in research, science, and engineering around the world.
—Rane Johnson, Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections
Nearly a million children die from pneumonia each year, making it a leading cause of death and the single most important health issue facing children under the age of five. The standard vaccination schedule calls for three doses of pneumonia vaccine given at six weeks, 10 weeks, and 14 weeks of age. Naturally, the intention is to protect children from this disease as early as possible—but administering the vaccine at such an early age also reduces how long the vaccine protects the child.
The Oxford Vaccine Group is conducting a program in Nepal to determine if shifting the vaccination schedule can extend childhood immunity until the critical five-year point. For the trial, the team is scheduling the first two doses to be given at six weeks and 14 weeks, but the third dose is given much later, at eight months of age. The team is hopeful that delaying the final vaccination will protect children for much longer, thus reducing the mortality rate from this serious disease.
Building Solutions with Everyday Technology
One of the biggest problems in medical informatics is keeping track of the data. Researchers must meticulously log who collected each piece of information, how it was collected, and any associated details. Manually inputting this data takes time away from actual research and is prone to error, while incomplete entries may cause problems for other researchers who refer to the material later. A team that is working on software support for medical informatics at the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science is seeking ways to simplify the process and reduce the risk of errors.
With support from Microsoft Research, this team developed CancerGrid, a system to manage all the diverse data that are associated with a clinical trial. Each data item to be collected is associated with a clearly-defined semantic label so that the precise meaning will be clear to clinical staff, and researchers can be certain that any two trials that use the same semantic label for an item of data are recording exactly the same thing. This makes it possible to reuse and combine data, making each trial far more valuable to researchers. Windows Azure and Microsoft Excel, SharePoint, and InfoPath are used to collect and organize the data, providing easy and intuitive access to data and implementing rules to ensure that critical data is recorded consistently and accurately. Forms, databases, and the associated infrastructure for each new trial can be generated at the touch of a button, permitting the deployment of trial support infrastructure in a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost of conventional methods.
It is this flexibility and automation that made it possible for CancerGrid to meet the needs of the Oxford Vaccine Group, rapidly generating full document management support for the Nepalese pneumonia vaccine trial. By using a secure Internet connection, researchers in Nepal now transmit data back to the University of Oxford, where it can be analyzed and the effectiveness of the new vaccination regime assessed. Working on CancerGrid has been a very satisfying collaboration for both the Oxford team and Microsoft Research. We are hopeful that it will prove to be a powerful tool in the fight against pneumonia and many other diseases.
—Simon Mercer, Director of Health and Wellbeing, Microsoft Research Connections