Too Much Information

InTouch Summer 2011 


Jerry Rhee, PhD is a postdoctoral associate who looks at phenomena from a slightly unusual angle.  Over his career so far, he has had opportunities to work with whole organismal systems, and has tried to figure out a way to see processes clearly. This sounds simple, but in the discipline in which Jerry works — developmental biology — scientists are studying not only embryology and development, they must also be fluent in the fields of genetics, cell biology and anatomy, to name a few.

How does a scientist juggle all of these demands? Jerry admits that there are not enough hours in the day to be expert at everything. “As a developmental biologist, I don’t have the training to take highly complicated data and convert it into something you and I can understand. We have to rely on somebody else,” he says.

When he joined the laboratory of Philip Iannaccone, MD, PhD, Jerry chose to study patterning in the cornea of chimeric mice — those that have a mix of cells from two different embryos. What he saw were spirals, which are common in nature. But upon looking at the same system in zebrafish, he says “the pattern was a little bit weird.” Using a demo instrument at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine — a multiphoton second harmonics generation microscope — Jerry began to see columns, squares and hexagons all woven together. “The data are giving us something really interesting but very confusing.”

Jerry also found that the information he was gleaning was overwhelming. “The more you try to dig and understand what’s happening, you realize you need more technology, and you have to figure out how to segment or extract information. You have to represent it in a way that’s digestible by the public and by other specialists.” The problem, he says, is a fundamental part of biomedical research.

It is from the incongruity of collecting huge amounts of data on many levels that Jerry began to envision science from a different perspective. “I think open source user interactive models that people can use to gain some understanding would be one solution.” Open scientists want to help answer questions that in many cases are seen as insurmountable. They achieve this by breaking down disciplinary boundaries, sharing data and equipment, and relying on experts from other fields.

Jerry is most recently involved with the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), whose members include a diverse group of faculty from all areas of the university: engineering, swarm robotics, business, natural sciences, education, medicine, law and the social sciences. NICO seeks to facilitate path-breaking research that transcends the boundaries of established disciplines. Jerry leads the NICO reading group, which regularly discusses research papers on a wide variety of topics related to complex systems. He says it’s refreshing to interact with other postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, discussing their research projects. It’s from the variety of viewpoints
and expertise that he is able to gain insight into his own work, and to help others improve their work.

Is any of this easy or convenient? “To get people from different backgrounds to understand each other is hard,” says Jerry. “And to get them on the same page is really hard. But I think it’s essential to move science ahead.”


 Reproductive Biology Minisymposium 2011 Program cover 



Enter Interdisciplinary?

Michael Miller, MD and Marisa Klein-Gitelman, MD, MPH in the Division of Rheumatology at Children’s Memorial Hospital have teamed up with information technologists and biostatisticians to extract data from electronic medical records. In a recent project, their goal was to test for treatment outcomes in patients with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). This was done using Xenobase™, an application permitting analyses of the relationship between physician assessment to joint examination and JIA subtype. This study was feasible only with the input of experts who understand data structure, extraction and analysis.

The newly established Center for Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention at Children’s Memorial examines a broad range of multidisciplinary subjects including sexual health, gender, sexuality, HIV prevention and health disparities affecting adolescent and young adult populations at risk of acquiring HIV. Faculty members have expertise in public health, HIV treatment and prevention, and critical care. The center is conducting projects that range from smoking cessation to the cultural underpinnings of HIV risk in African-American youth to massage to text messaging interventions.

Says Robert Garofalo, MD, MPH, director of the center, "A multidisciplinary approach to the complex issues our center focuses on is critical to both asking germane research questions and to developing innovative and yet practical approaches to prevention that our community desperately needs."   




Image (left) 

The Center for Reproductive Science at Northwestern University held its 31st Annual Minisymposium on Reproductive Biology on April 12, 2011. The work of Jerry Rhee was selected to appear on the program cover.

1. The first two images are a close-up view near the central vessel of the 12dpc gonad shown in the bottom row. The last two are close-up views of a different gonad stained for Quaking5 (red) and PECAM (green) to show differences in Qk5 nuclear localization in germ cells and different PECAM membrane distributions in a putative female gonad.

2. Bigger views of a different 12dpc gonad stained for pan-Laminin (Sigma, red) and PECAM to highlight boundary between mesonephros and gonad.

3. Wide-field views of 12dpc gonad stained for PECAM (Pharmingen, green) and Quaking5 (Bethyl, Polyclonal).