University research network looks to grow

UMN Profiles uses open source code developed by Harvard.

With 72,000 students, professors and staff, getting in touch with somebody at the University of Minnesota is not an easy task.
The difficulty intensifies when a researcher needs to consult or collaborate with a peer from across campus.
âÄúIt was just extremely difficult to find out whoâÄôs doing what,âÄù said Layne Johnson, a translational science information specialist at the University.
At least it was until last summer, when the University, led in part by Johnson, began a new networking program for the 4,200 researchers at the Academic Health Center.
UMN Profiles, using open source code from Harvard University, combines the University of MinnesotaâÄôs directory software with a database for scientific publishing to create interactive profiles. In the last year, its network has connected with 28 other institutions on seven similar platforms or, Johnson said, from âÄúa few thousand people here to tens of thousands of researchersâÄù nationwide.
Since its implementation, the software has been used by multiple groups across the Harvard campus âÄî from students looking for mentors to administrators searching within the bureaucratic system, said Griffin Weber, the chief information officer of Harvard Medical School and the lead developer of the software UMN Profiles adapted.
âÄúItâÄôs all over the map,âÄù said Wei Zhong, one of four âÄúresearch navigators,âÄù or assistants, for HarvardâÄôs system of users. But she cited an example of the projectâÄôs potential in the collaboration of a young Harvard chemist and a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Tobias Ritter had been developing a new technology for PET scans, she said, and needed to find a collaborator. He found Dr. Thomas Brady through the search. The pair is now continuing work on a project proposal.
ThatâÄôs the kind of collaboration Johnson hopes will take root at the University of Minnesota with the network. He said the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Science and Engineering are in talks to join.
While the multiplying effect of networks takes time, Johnson said he expects it to pick up as more and more researchers make use of it.
âÄúItâÄôs sort of like social networks,âÄù he said. âÄúTen years ago, where was Facebook?âÄù
Eventually, researchers will use UMN Profiles not just as a network but also to research in new ways, Johnson said.
To expand UMN Profiles, he said, the Clinical and Translational Science Laboratory, which houses the network, has applied for funding from the National Institutes of Health. Similar awards have been given to 55 institutes across the country. The program is set to announce recipients in July.
While academic literature has cited the potential for translational science âÄî or how to apply research to a population âÄî spanning all academic disciplines, one of the most readily applicable areas is in public health.
Johnson, who trained in microbiology, gets excited when talking about the programâÄôs potential.
âÄúThe hope is not only to find experts working in the community,âÄù he said, but also members of the community the research might help, like the Somali community in Cedar-Riverside or others affected by racial disparities in health.
âÄúItâÄôs not a reality right now,âÄù he said. âÄú[But] it sure would be a really wonderful thing if we could do that someday.âÄù