New U-LINK Awards Support Innovative Solutions to Difficult Problems

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Can machine learning help develop personalized treatments for the “silent epidemic” of brain injury, which affects 15 million Americans every year?

A team of faculty from five disciplines, including two from the Miller School of Medicine, will begin trying to answer that question after receiving one of the second set of Phase I grants awarded by the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge, or U-LINK. A key initiative of UM’s Roadmap to Our New Century, U-LINK was launched two years ago to foster interdisciplinary collaborations and new approaches to complex problems across the University.

Another five teams with specialists from the Center for Computational Science and faculty from nine of the University’s colleges and schools, including two teams with investigators from the Miller School, also were awarded Phase I funding for their proposals addressing challenges related to climate change, childhood poverty, and the data revolution.

“Our strategy is to allow faculty teams to choose their own research problems. It was interesting that so many teams focused this year on the application of big data to health and social issues,” said John Bixby, Ph.D., vice provost for research, who directs the U-LINK initiative.

Added Susan Morgan, Ph.D., associate provost for research and U-LINK’s co-director: “These are innovative proposals from creative people that go well beyond expected approaches. We look forward to working with these highly diverse teams to help them achieve their visions.”

Like the inaugural round of Phase I grantees — three of which have since received Phase II funding of $150,000 — the new Phase I teams receive $40,000 in salary support, the benefit of a UM librarian’s expertise, and use of U-LINK’s collaboration space at Richter Library. Team members also will attend a two-day Team Science Workshop starting January 31, where they’ll learn more about the art and science of interdisciplinary research, which is essential to tackling society’s most vexing problems.

Here’s a look at three of the proposals and the U-LINK teams behind them that include participants from the Miller School:

1. Personalized Treatment after Brain Injury: Combining Biological and Cognitive Factors with Machine Learning Approaches

For this proposal, experts in neurological surgery, computer science, psychology, and physical medicine and rehabilitation hope to employ machine learning technology to develop precision medicine treatments for the 1.5 million patients in the U.S. who suffer from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) every year — but are left with surprisingly few effective treatments.

A research team hopes to use machine learning technology to develop precision medicine treatments for patients with traumatic brain injuries.

Noting that the lack of viable treatments may be due, in part, to the multitude of causes and severity of TBIs, team members believe that recent breakthroughs in machine learning, particularly in the area of “deep learning,” could help clinicians tailor treatments for the myriad types and severities of TBIs.

Since deep learning involves stacking multiple layers of complex computations, allowing the computer to “learn” progressively more complex concepts, the team believes it has access to a valuable deep learning tool for assessing brain injuries: the dataset from Operation Brain Trauma Therapy (OBTT), which includes multiple injury models, treatment strategies, behavioral assessments, task performance videos, histological assessments, and biomarker screenings.

As team members noted, “For machine learning, OBTT is a goldmine” that could “shed light on a number of pressing questions that have eluded conventional statistics” on TBI cases, which every year are six times higher than the number of new breast cancer, spinal cord injury, HIV infection, and multiple sclerosis cases combined.

Miller School team members on this project, which is co-sponsored by the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, include Helen Bramlett, Ph.D., and W. Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., from The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and Lauren Shapiro, M.D., MPH, from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Additional investigators include Odelia Schwartz, Ph.D., and Dilip Sarkar, Ph.D., from the Department of Computer Science; Lucina Uddin, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology; and Zsuzsa Nemeth, MLIS, reference librarian and research liaison.

2. Hyper-localism: Transforming the Paradigm for Climate Adaptation

Drawing from expertise in public health, architecture, atmospheric sciences, communication, ecosystem science and policy, and marine geosciences, this team hopes to expand the conversation about climate change resilience by focusing on hyper-local (Hy-Lo), rather than regional, adaptations. Their goal is to put people first, with almost block-by-block mapping and granular analyses.

Researchers will take a hyper-local approach to studying the impacts of climate change.

“The Hy-Lo approach recognizes that impacts of climate change can differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, based both on the physical context as well as societal vulnerability,” the team wrote in its proposal. “We view this fundamentally human-based approach as critical to helping individuals and communities across the globe face the challenges of climate change.”

Team members plan to engage with local stakeholders and networks of organizations to analyze the risks, values, assets, and possible actions in given areas. Because Miami has a broadly diverse geography and demographic profile, the region is an ideal location to develop a framework for hyper-local approaches, which team members believe neighborhoods across the nation and world could use to tailor effective climate action plans for their own unique circumstances.

“We see this HyLo protocol as ‘scaling down to scale up,’” the team wrote in its proposal.

The Miller School team member on the project is Joanna Lombard, M.Arch., from the Department of Public Health Sciences, who also has an appointment in the School of Architecture. Additional investigators are Tyler Harrison, Ph.D., from the School of Communication; Sam Purkis, Ph.D., from the Department of Marine Geosciences; Gina Maranto, MA, from the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy; Amy Clement, Ph.D., from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences; and Angela Clark-Hughes, MLIS, from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Library.

3. Leveraging Untapped Opportunities in Place and Time: A Community-Based Child Well-Being Collaborative

For this program, specialists in psychology, public health sciences, health economics, history, pediatrics, computational science, and geography plan to lay the groundwork for the development of an integrated data system that can identify the “opportunity gaps” that disproportionately affect children growing up in poverty — enabling educators, social workers, policymakers and health care professionals to address them.

“Opportunity gaps” that disproportionately affect children growing up in poverty will be explored by one research team.

As team members note, school districts and other public agencies that serve children operate independently and “silo” the data they collect and store, making it difficult for researchers and stakeholders to work together to identify the gaps where interventions are needed. As a result, they miss early opportunities to improve the lives of children, and their future success.

“Educators and health care providers need access to quality, timely data to guide their actions across multiple sectors, to identify gaps where interventions are most needed to reduce children’s cumulative exposure to risks that may lead to poor educational, health, and social behavioral outcomes,” the team wrote in its proposal.

Miller School team members include Jeffrey Brosco, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Pediatrics; and Scott Brown, Ph.D., and Kathryn McCollister, Ph.D., from the Department of Public Health Sciences. Additional investigators are Rebecca Shearer, Ph.D., and Christine Delgado, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology; Robin Bachin, Ph.D., from the Department of History; Chris Mader, from the Center for Computational Science; Imelda Moise, Ph.D., MPH, from the Department of Geography and Regional Studies; and Vera Spika, MSW, MLIS, from the Richter Library.

Profiles of the three U-LINK-funded research projects not involving Miller School researchers are available here.

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