Grant from Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative fuels data projects at GVSU, Van Andel Institute

A collaboration between Van Andel Institute and Grand Valley to make data more accessible to researchers worldwide has received support through a $200,000 Data Insights grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The project addresses a central problem in modern, data-intensive biomedical research: how to efficiently store and analyze the massive data output from today’s technologies in a way that allows both researchers and citizen-scientists to unlock insights within.

For example, scientists can now catalog the differences between individual cells in extreme detail, illuminating variations that may contribute to cancer, Parkinson’s and many other diseases. But these answers are buried in vast swathes of data that must be analyzed and stored, a task that can be challenging even for high-powered computers. 

Zach DeBruine seated for a headshot in a dark suit, colorful tie
Zachary DeBruine, assistant professor of computing, conducted this research while a postdoctoral fellow at Van Andel Institute.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

The project was born from the research of Zachary DeBruine, assistant professor of computing and a former postdoctoral fellow in Tim Triche’s lab who earned his doctorate from Van Andel Institute Graduate School. DeBruine also holds an adjunct position at VAI.

“A central problem in science today is that our ability to generate data has outpaced our ability to analyze large, complex biological datasets,” said Triche, VAI assistant professor, the grant’s lead investigator. “Our goal is to improve access to powerful tools and allow exploration of the foundations of biology — how cells determine their fate, state and function; how cells interact with each other and their environment to produce health and disease; and how genetic variation between and within people influences the outcomes.”

As part of his Ph.D. dissertation, DeBruine developed an elegant solution that repackages data files that are too big to run on a single computer into a compressed form. The resulting file requires 1/10th the computational space as the original without losing data or performance, making it much easier and faster to comb through data. The grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will allow Triche and DeBruine to refine and scale up this solution.

“We aim to make data analysis more accessible using simple solutions that don’t require resource-intensive computational pipelines or deep expertise in computer science,” DeBruine said. “Our efforts ensure that all researchers can analyze single-cell data. What that ultimately means is more people can work with information in ways that could shed new light on the diseases that impact so many.”

two men looking at a computer monitor and pointing
Zachary DeBruine, left, and Tim Triche are pictured at Van Andel Institute.
Image credit - courtesy photo

The project also strengthens the relationship between VAI and GVSU’s computational groups and provides new opportunities for research and scientific training.

“Dr. DeBruine has been breaking new ground in the field of bioinformatics and high-performance machine learning at Van Andel Institute,” said Jonathan Engelsma, professor of computing and director of the Applied Computing Institute at GVSU. “This particular grant will provide more GVSU students the sort of research and experiential learning opportunities that the Applied Computing Institute has become known for.” 


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