Stimulus grant establishes ‘Facebook for scientists’

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will be one of seven institutions to create a new national network for sharing information between scientists.

A $12.2 million grant from National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) will establish the network, which has been described as “Facebook for scientists.” The funding for this effort comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“Science has become increasingly complex, and that’s leading to diverse research collaborations that often fall outside of traditional lines,” says Kristi Holmes, Ph.D., bioinformaticist at Washington University’s Bernard Becker Medical Library. “This new network will help researchers find one another and explore potential avenues of collaboration that they might not have considered before.”

The project’s lead organization is the University of Florida; other participants are Cornell University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Indiana University, the Scripps Research Institute and the Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico. Initially, each institution will establish its own network of researchers. Within two years, the team aims to have the network connected across the country. Eventually organizers intend to broaden the scope of the project to include researchers around the world.

Holmes, Rakesh Nagarajan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and immunology and director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics (CBMI) and Leslie McIntosh, Ph.D., a research instructor in ophthalmology and visual sciences, will lead Washington University’s contributions to the network. Their group will evaluate the overall project, make the network more accessible to users and gather feedback from users to fine-tune the network.

Project collaborators will build upon open-source software known as VIVO that was originally developed at Cornell University. Described as a research discovery tool, VIVO allows users to search on one site for all publicly known information about a specific topic or researcher. On Cornell’s VIVO site, a search for the word “cancer,” for example, yields dozens of results, but they are broken up into categories like “people,” “opportunities” and “topics.” Clicking on any category takes one to another set of subgroups that allows searchers to more quickly find exactly what they want.

Scientists will not need to regularly update their profiles on the new network. Instead, collections of relevant facts, such as name, title, publication record, and more will be collected from verifiable data sources, such as scientific journals and university web pages. This will allow individual profiles to be automatically updated, minimizing the need for manual revision and making the information easily searchable and presentable.

By helping scientists to find one another, researchers will be able to improve their ongoing studies and forge collaborations that can lead to new discoveries, according to Michael Conlon, Ph.D., interim director of biomedical informatics for University of Florida and the principal investigator of the grant.

“The goal of the program is national networking of all scientists,” Conlon says.

The Washington University portion of this project and the CBMI are supported by the Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS) at Washington University. The ICTS is Washington University’s implementation of a National Institutes of Health program known as the Clinical and Translational Science Awards, which provides funding for research designed to reduce the time it takes laboratory discoveries to be translated into improved diagnosis and treatment of patients.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.