Oct. 2, 2020

From pandemic data storytelling to topographical brain maps, PURE undergrad researchers are at forefront of digital data transformation

Students use advanced research and data literacy techniques to develop next-generation digital skills

Business, government and non-profit organizations look to academia as an incubator for data literacy and advanced research. Some studies forecast that up to 80 per cent of organizations will initiate deliberate competency development in the field of data literacy to overcome extreme deficiencies in today’s institutions.

In research-intensive universities, programs — such as the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) —  that foster the development of next-generation researchers early on in their careers are essential to developing future-forward competencies in graduates. While PURE students develop knowledge of disciplinary research methodologies, the high-impact projects are often centered at the crossroads of different fields.

A pandemic data story map and a topographical brain map are two examples of PURE projects in which data storytelling and visualization blend advanced visual design and communications with science. 

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Mapping a pandemic’s story

In January, inspired by early renditions of web-maps and dashboards, Akanksha Bhargava sought to visualize the global viral spread through her own virtual mapping project. For the second-year undergraduate student from the Schulich School of Engineering, the initial worries of not having enough COVID-19 data for her PURE research quickly disappeared.

By the time the PURE term started in May, the flood of data exceeded any expectations Bhargava had about COVID-19 data accessibility. So, she set her sights on “creating something that would help communities in my home province, Alberta.” 

Applying geomatics engineering techniques to a unique online application, Bhargava’s research has resulted in a visually stunning interactive website: the Alberta COVID-19 Story Map. More than just a summary of daily case numbers, the map documents the social and political events occurring alongside the provincial COVID-19 spread. It also combines text with images, interactive graphs, animations and updated dashboards, offering Albertans a user-friendly and well-designed source of reliable data and information.

Combating an 'info-demic'

The rapid and limitless flow of information in our digital age can be hard for any individual to follow. Bhargava hopes that with her research as an example of a single “immersive and informative source for a topic of such importance,” similar strategies can be employed toward “combating the ‘info-demic’ we face.” With numerous news, data and information sources, Bhargava’s project aims to unify rather than fragment the existing knowledge within the province.

Looking ahead, Bhargava says, “I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of engineering. I am looking forward to pursuing my interests in biomedical engineering research in future.”

Research is personal

Ali Babwani is passionate about innovation in neurophysiology, and that passion runs from a deeply personal source. Babwani’s older brother suffered a perinatal stroke when he was two days old. His brother now lives with cerebral palsy, a condition that has severely affected the motor functions of his brother’s right hand and leg.

“Growing up and seeing him having such a hard time completing everyday tasks made me realize how important it is to understand this condition and if there was anything we could have done early on.”

Having seen how the condition affects his brother, Babwani’s research seeks to understand how we can improve the quality of life for children and families affected by perinatal strokes. “Early interventions could be the future of changing a child’s life forever.”

Topographical maps for brains

Like Bhargava, Babwani’s research deals in data visualization — except Babwani’s data comes from brain stimulations. Using a new, innovative method, Babwani and the Kirton research team created topographical representations, or motor maps, to visualize the relationship between the brain and muscles in the hand.

These maps and their corresponding quantifiable data help researchers better understand the complexity of neurophysiology. Babwani hopes that with continued research efforts, there is potential to “understand new gateways and avenues to neurorehabilitation, and how we can use this research to enhance and improve motor function.” 

The pandemic halted the planned trials and physical data collection. Still, Babwani was undeterred, describing his PURE research experience as “a foundational stepping stone” to his career in clinical research. He notes, “I want to be a neuroscientist and clinician that specializes in traumatic brain injury. Hopefully, one day I will use, create and consult on biotechnologies that can enhance the quality of life for children and their families as they transition to adulthood.”

Using innovative technologies and interdisciplinary techniques to visually map data, Bhargava and Babwani’s research projects are instrumental as our world becomes increasingly complex. From the general public to discipline experts, the succinct, impactful visualization of data is crucial to effective communication across local and global communities.

The College of Discovery, Creativity and Innovation (CDCI), in the Taylor institute for Teaching and Learning, is committed to continuing to provide and advance experiential learning and early research opportunities like the PURE Awards to students such as Bhargava and Babwani. It co-ordinates PURE, a competitive summer research award that provides financial support to UCalgary undergraduate students for eight,12 or 16 weeks between May and August. The 2021 PURE Awards will open for applications in early December.