The Reporter
Issue 486, 25 November 2002
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Helping researchers manage the data mountain – the Informatics Institute


From huge databanks of molecular structures, to the UK census or the intricacies of animal behaviour, academics handle enormous amounts of data. Without computers, the knowledge locked within this data would remain inaccessible. Informatics provides the tools to help researchers, in areas as diverse as ecology and economics, mathematics and mechanical engineering, use the available data to its full potential. The University has been involved in informatics for many years, but now a new purpose-built centre is bringing interdisciplinary researchers and students together in an exciting, dynamic environment.

Professor Peter DewDirector of informatics Professor Peter Dew’s brief to the architects for the new Informatics Institute was ‘make it “wow”’. Funded through the science research infrastructure fund (SRIF), it may not look like traditional university teaching and research space, but the layout was carefully designed to reflect the institute’s clear focus on both multidisciplinary research and learning.

“Informatics is, by its very nature, multidisciplinary, and the open plan design encourages dynamic teams and close collaborations, between research staff, and with students,” said Professor Dew (pictured left). “The institute is perhaps the first interdisciplinary centre whose work will be powered as much by the teaching of undergraduate and postgraduate courses as it will be by research. This may be the model for the future, and we now have the environment to make it happen.”

Nine students started the new MSc in informatics this year. The Bachelor in Informatics (BInf) will have its first intake in September 2003. The courses mix core computing modules with modules in biochemistry and molecular biology, geography, mechanical engineering, and, from 2003, health. The need for graduates with informatics skills is shown by the industrial sponsors supporting the courses, including IBM and Hewlett Packard.

Informatics is providing the skills and another SRIF-funded project provides the means. The White Rose grid, set up jointly by Leeds, Sheffield and York, will provide researchers with powerful computing resources, and allow collaboration on major projects across the three universities.

The Informatics Institute

Innovative design – a central open space leads off to glass walled offices (below) and seminar rooms, and an open plan research area

As director of the informatics network, linking researchers in different disciplines who use informatics, Dr Mark Birkin is keen to ensure the grid and the informatics institute are used to their full potential. “My own research area is devising models for use in decision support, such as where to site cancer screening facilities,” said Dr Birkin. “The grid is useful not just because of the volume of data required, but because data such as the census or health authority figures are often in different locations, and the grid has the capacity to access and analyse them simultaneously.”

Different types of cancer affect different sectors of the population, so Dr Birkin’s model has to take in information on who will need the service, where they live, their transport and access needs, and tie that in with the resources and infrastructure at possible sites for the facility, whether GP surgeries or hospitals – all complex informatics tasks. The research, funded through the DTI and the ESRC, will provide a model for siting all kinds of healthcare facilities.

Bioinformatics forms a large part of the informatics research programme, from the analysis of huge databanks to match molecular three-dimensional structures to models of animal behaviour, or simulations of evolutionary processes. “The complex matching calculations combined with the enormous size of modern molecular biological databases mean that grid-based supercomputing will bring significant advances in our research area,” said Dr Dave Westhead.

Professor of geophysics, Greg Houseman, uses computer models to predict and study processes occurring deep in the Earth over very long time-scales, such as thermal convection, plate tectonics, and the internal deformation of continents when mountain ranges are formed. “Geophysics also uses informatics in the industrial application of very large datasets generated by geophysical measurement systems in oil or mineral exploration,” he said. “The computational advances the grid offers will allow for more complex three-dimensional modelling, in particular in a new NERC-funded project to look at the interface between solid silicate mantle and liquid iron core deep in the Earth.”

Looking through the glass door of one of the institute's new offices“Applied research needs to adapt to new technologies,” said Professor Dew, “But computing also needs to change to become more inclusive of applied research and be an ‘enabling technology’. Informatics can provide the means for that to happen, acting as a hub for all types of research across the University.”

For more details, see the informatics website



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