Breaking Boundaries

BYU’s innovative new computational health science collaboration opens new research possibilities.

By Sarah Syphus

Members of the computational health science collaboration
Members of the computational health science collaboration. Back, left to right: Stephen Clarkson, Elizabeth Brutsch, Ben Cannon, Scott Braithwaite, Dr. Christophe Giraud-Carrier. Front, left to right: Donghong Han, Dr. Carl Hanson, Dr. Josh West, and Michael Christensen.

Health scientists and computer scientists at BYU are collaborating to revolutionize public health surveillance. They are calling their new method of research “computational health science”. This collaboration sets an example of cooperative and innovative research for universities across the country.

From its beginning two years ago, the computational health science research group crossed boundaries between two different disciplines. The initiative for this collaboration began when a linguistics student with an interest in health and social networking came to computer scientists at BYU looking to combine those two interests. This idea sparked a partnership between the College of Life Sciences and the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences that has been expanding ever since.

Now, BYU students and faculty from both the health science and computer science programs are using social networking sites like Twitter to collect data on various health crises such as obesity, suicide, or prescription drug addiction. Information that BYU health scientists once gathered through pencil and paper surveys or questions over the phone can now be collected more efficiently with the help of computer programs designed to sort and monitor big data gathered from social networks. This new method of surveillance helps researchers better understand the health issues that certain communities face. “You can’t create a solution to a problem unless you really understand the problem,” says Dr. Carl Hanson, an associate professor of health science at BYU. “One of the innovative things that this collaboration provides is the opportunity to understand the problems using a different methodology of tools.”

This kind of collaboration between colleges is in and of itself an innovation. Students and faculty from the Departments of Computer Science and Health Science meet every week to discuss their current research. Health science students even spend time working with the computer science students and faculty in the computer science labs. “We want to do something where both disciplines are served,” says Dr. Christophe Giraud-Carrier, associate professor of computer science at BYU. “The projects that we pick push the boundary in health and push the boundary in computer science. They are proper, valid research contributions in both fields. That really is a difference from what people do in a lot of other places.”

According to Hanson, this multi-disciplinary work opens up fresh and exciting research possibilities. “In higher education,” he says, “it is fairly typical for faculty to stay within their own silos, for departments to stay within departments. But we’ve busted out of that mold here and not only worked across departments, but this is across colleges. It really provides some synergy to research and opportunities that you couldn’t provide on your own.”

The computational health science collaboration is creating a new way to research public health, and it is also creating a new kind of BYU student and BYU graduate. Giraud-Carrier hopes the teamwork will allow students from both programs to move into their future careers conversant in both fields and prepared to make a difference. “Our vision,” Giraud-Carrier says, “is to almost create a new breed of professionals in the sense that they come out and they’re not just health scientists or computer scientists but they are computational health scientists.” With the continued prevalence of social networking in everyday lives, the computational health science research at BYU promises to keep opening new and important doors in the study of public health.