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Screen shot 2014-01-24 at 10.40.07 AMOn the occasion of his 100th birthday, a man is interviewed by a local reporter who asks for his secret to longevity. The reporter suggests that perhaps his long life is due to a certain kind of diet, exercise or other activities. The 100-year-old man ponders this for a few minutes and then replies, “I don’t know, I’ll go ask Mom!” This joke illustrates the common conception that your state of health is based primarily on your genes – what you’ve inherited from your parents and forebearers.

This assumption is partially correct. An interesting paper by Steven Schroeder titled, “We can do better – Improving the health of the American people,” (The New England Journal of Medicine, 357:12, Sept. 20, 2007) reports on an extensive study to understand factors that impact health and their contributions to premature death. The main factors identified include genetic predisposition (30%), social circumstances (15%), environmental exposure (5%), health care (10%), and behavioral patterns (40%). Thus, genetic predisposition is a major influence on longevity. However, the largest factor on health and longevity involves personal behavioral patterns such as diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption, which have been shown to have a major impact on one’s overall health and longevity. Perhaps this is why many people resolve each New Years to get in shape or to lose weight.

Recent advances in information technology are being touted as ways to assist in keeping those resolutions. Online support aids such as myfitnesspal.com provide an extensive database of calorie counts for a wide variety of foods, including meals from restaurants such as Paneras, Wendy’s, and Subway, as well as from grocery stores such as Trader Joes and Wegmans.  You can also use a QR reader app on your smartphone to directly obtain information on calories while shopping at a grocery store. The site keeps a record of your weight goals, daily calorie counts, and exercise, and makes predictions about your anticipated weight loss (or gain). Then there are devices, such as Fitbit, which are “smart” bracelets that can be worn to track your level of activity and provide wireless information to your cell phone or computer. Similarly, special apps for cell phones monitor your daily activities such as walking or biking and can upload your path and results to social networking sites such as Facebook. Other sites like Nerdfitness.com provide tutorials, videos, and advice on diet and exercise and offer daily (encouraging?) e-mails regarding your progress and connectivity to a social network of others seeking to improve their health.

One of IST’s faculty members, Dr. Erika Poole has dedicated her career to improving human-centered apps to promote personal well-being. Erika’s research involves studying adolescents and developing video games or “exergaming” to promote physical exercise and healthy personal choices.  Her efforts are admirable and especially suited for the new generation of digital natives.

Many other faculty in IST also conduct research that directly supports improvements in our personal, national and global health. Examples include:

  • Advanced sensors and data processing – Researchers such as Rick Tutwiler (an affiliated faculty member and deputy director of the Center for Network Centric Cognition and Information Fusion (NC2IF)) develop advanced algorithms for processing signal and image data for improved information extraction from sensors, many of which have medical diagnostic applications. Dr. James Wang and his students have developed advanced methods for automatic semantic labeling and characterization of image data allowing researchers and physicians to rapidly sort through very large medical data to find images (such as an X-ray) that “look like” that of the data from a particular patient.

  • Data visualization – Dr. Guoray Cai and Dr. Luke Zhang conduct research on data visualization and geospatial data understanding to assist in interpretation of medical image data, understanding of data trends, and geo-spatial issues related to medicine such as epidemiology.

  • Advanced search engines – Dr. Lee Giles and his students develop advanced search engines (such as extensions of CiteSeerX) that aid in accurately accessing the more than one million medical papers published per year, including automated access of information such as chemical formulae and information from graphs and tables.

  • Data discovery and informatics – IST’s new chaired professor, Dr. Vasant Honavar, specializes in data discovery, bioinformatics, and genomics. He is affiliated with the Penn State Huck Institute for the Life Sciences, the Institute for Cybersciences, and the Bioinformatics and Genomics Graduate Program. His research provides insight into how to access, represent, reason about, visualize, and understand data associated with biological and medical applications.

  • Information fusion – Researchers at IST’s NC2IF focus on issues such as how to combine data from multiple physical sensors, how to combined data from sensors and human observations, and how to process data to recognize special conditions or events. Applications of this “hard” (physical sensor) data and “soft” (human observation) data fusion have clear applications for the interaction between patients, nurses, physicians, and laboratory technicians, and the output from medical sensors for improved diagnoses.

  • Social network analysis and community informatics – IST faculty study social networks, community interactions, and information exchange for applications such as understanding how online cancer communities help support one another (Dr. John Yen and Dr. Prasenjit Mitra). Their research has helped users improve their ability to search for the most recent and relevant materials about a condition or disease, aid community building efforts, and support member interactions.  Another example involves Dr. Lynette Kvasny, who has conducted research to develop a culturally compelling social network approach to HIV/AIDs prevention for African American college students, and has designed, implemented, and assessed community computing projects in economically challenged neighborhoods.

  • Health care operations and collaboration – Understanding health care operations, workflow, and how medical teams interact and collaborate is a special area studied by Dr. Madhu Reddy. His work involves how collaborative teams operate in the healthcare domain of hospitals. Other research conducted by Dr. Michael McNeese studies team-based cognition – how teams interact to obtain a collaborative situational awareness for applications such as emergency response.

  • Privacy and security of medical records – A number of faculty conduct research related to security and privacy of online materials.   Examples include research by Dr. Chao Chu and Dr. Peng Liu. As more and more medical data is collected, and medical data records are digitized, issues of privacy and security will become increasingly important.

  • Enterprise architecture – The study of enterprise architecture involves understanding how organizations must address the dynamic interaction of people, organizational structures, computing, computer networks, sensor systems, data, knowledge, policies and procedures, and all must be coordinated in an effective way to ensure enterprise success is increasingly important for medical systems. Bryan Cameron leads IST’s educational and research focus in this area.

Information science and technology provides enabling factors that affect virtually every facet required to promote improved health, from nutrition to behaviors, to disease prevention, to improvement of health care systems, to personalized medicine, to bioinformatics, and to understanding the overall human system. Clearly, IST faculty are conducting research that can impact all of these areas. As IST moves forward, these research areas will be a key component in Penn State’s strategic efforts to promote our health.

In the near future, the 100-year-old man, when questioned about the basis for his longevity will simply reply, “I’ll go ask my computer!”

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