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Head of Informatics Institute works to build next generation searchable databases

“I came to the University of Missouri because of the opportunities for research with corporations, the University Medical School, Life Sciences, and other disciplines,” said Chi-Ren Shyu, who, in addition to heading University of Missouri Informatics Institute, is the founding director of the College of Engineering’s Medical and Biological Digital Library Research Lab.

Shyu’s current five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award project is a collaboration in bioinformatics with scientists at North Carolina State University and Iowa State University. He is working with the group to build a database and search engines to link the genetic code of blighted or mutant corn to the plants’ phenotypic. or visible, manifestations of the maladies.

The team’s goal is to provide biologists with worldwide access to databases that are searchable using images of afflicted corn. The phenotypes can be matched to plants with identical visual characteristics in order to make a determination about genes that are responsible for the mutations.

In August 2008, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Shyu nearly $450,000 to support advanced knowledge database searches in biology, medicine, and geospacial applications. The new research uses a novel approach to mathematically model the description of corn disorders. Shyu will transform subjective verbal knowledge descriptions of corn maladies, made by plant sciences faculty emeriti Edward Coe and Gerry Neuffer, into computer manageable digital formats using artificial intelligence and computer vision algorithms. Shyu explained that project is extremely exciting, but risky because the cognitive model covers new computational ground that has not been widely studied.

“It involves text mining of certain words and phrases and using an algorithm to link descriptions with image patterns of maize mutants,” Shyu said.

“With fifty years of experience, these two maize researchers are University of Missouri treasures,” added Shyu explaining that the sheer length of their careers has made them expert at identifying maize mutations.

Additionally, Shyu is engaged in research on a $2,225,000 National Institute of Health-sponsored medical informatics project with Dr. Jane Armer, director of the American Lymphedema Framework Project and a professor at the MU School of Nursing, developing computational tools to track the quality of life in patients who suffer from lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. By building a database that profiles patient pre- and post-operative experiences, it is hoped that informed quality of life predictions can ease the pain and suffering caused by this associated swelling.

Cerner Healthcare Systems also has contracted with Shyu to help build the next generation search engine with the capability to mine predictive information from ECGs, CAT scans and other non-traditional data searches from medical records.

“Biomedical informatics is about prediction and decision-making for the quality of life using computational methods in biology and medicine,” said Shyu. “It’s very exciting and rewarding work.”