IU part of $1 million grant from NSF to create country’s first big data “spoke” focused on neuroscience

“The field of neuroscience is transforming,” wrote IU neuroscientist Franco Pestilli in a commentary published last year in the journal Nature Scientific Data. “Brain data from people and institutions around the world are being openly shared — moving from office desks and personal storage devices to institutionally supported cloud systems and public repositories.”

This process of openly sharing brain data — a part of the larger movement toward “open science” — is ushering in the era of “big data neuroscience.”

An environmental portrait of Franco Pestilli.

IU neuroscientist Franco Pestilli is principal investigator on the NSF grant funding the Neuroscience Spoke of the Midwest Big Data Hub.

And now, as part of the team named recipient on a $1 million grant, IU will play a role on the forefront of this era by contributing to the establishment of the Neuroscience Spoke in the Midwest Big Data Hub. The principal investigator on the award is Pestilli, an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

The award — a part of a major new initiative from the National Science Foundation and White House to “create a national ecosystem for Big Data and Data Science” — is a symbol of IU’s progression toward leadership in the field of both neuroscience and big data science. It is also part of $11 million in federal grants announced today to advance research and create infrastructure designed to ensure data acquired by publicly funded basic research is effectively shared and used.

“This award will help put IU on the map as a leader in the big data neuroscience,” Pestilli said. “We will contribute to moving neuroscience research beyond a cottage industry model, where independent labs generate data that remains unshared, by establishing a regional and national network of professionals and scientists who are proficient in data science and who possess the assets necessary to share data, software and computing resources that contribute to the impact of the scientific enterprise and the reproducibility of results.”

Pestilli’s co-investigators on the Neuroscience Spoke are Olaf Sporns, IU Distinguished Professor in Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Andrew Saykin, Raymond C. Beeler Professor of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at the IU School of Medicine.

The term “spoke” refers to IU’s position as part of the Midwest Big Data Hub, one of four regional “hubs” across the country funded under the NSF’s Big Data Hub program. The award makes IU part of the only spoke in the United States focused on neuroscience.

Big data hubs are administrative entities that facilitate research and coordination across regions composed of spokes with specific areas of interest. Members of the Midwest Hub are IU, University of Michigan, Iowa State University, the University of North Dakota and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Neuroscience Spoke will facilitate the sharing of data such as this visualization of two brain connectomes. The image, which uses two different methods for mapping human white matter, is based upon a scan of Pestilli's own brain.

The Neuroscience Spoke will facilitate the sharing of data such as this visualization of two brain connectomes. The image, which uses two different methods for mapping human white matter, is based upon a scan of Pestilli’s brain.

The Neuroscience Spoke is made up of IU, the University of Michigan, Case Western University, The Ohio State University, Northwestern University and the University of Washington St. Louis.

A major part of the new spoke’s effort to improve neuroscience data sharing will be a series of Big Data Neuroscience workshops designed to create closer ties between the research labs, neuroimaging centers and hospitals affiliated with the members of the Midwestern Big Data Hub.

The first of these workshops, organized by Pestilli, will be held in the third quarter of 2017 at IU Bloomington, after which they will move to Ohio State in 2018 and the University of Michigan in 2019.

Each workshop will host everyone from leaders to trainees in the field of neurosciences to learn and discuss best practices around big data. Planning for the workshops has already begun, with the preparations for the first event kicking off at the University of Michigan on Sept. 21 to 22.

Beyond its leading position in the new Neuroscience Spoke, IU is also playing other leading roles in the NSF’s Big Data Hub initiative. Beth Plale, professor in the IU School of Computing and Informatics and science director of the IU Pervasive Technology Institute, is a co-primary investigator on the Midwest Big Data Hub, and Bernice Pescosolido, IU Distinguished Professor of Sociology, is leader of the Midwest Big Data Hub’s Network Science Spoke.

Pescosolido and Sporns are also scientific co-directors of the IU Network Science Institute, or IUNI. Saykin is a member of the scientific leadership team at IUNI.

“This is, effectively, a ‘collaborative IUNI grant,'” said Pestilli, who is also an affiliate of IUNI. “The institute’s leadership has been incredibly helpful to me in clarifying the requirements of this new NSF program.”

Other co-investigators on IU’s portion of the Neuroscience Spoke grant are Lei Wang of Northwestern University and Daniel Marcus of Washington University in St. Louis. Wang will be contributing expertise on Mediator software technology. Marcus will serve as a consultant on the grant due to his expertise in neuroscience data management.

“I look forward to reaching out to the extended IU campus for contributions to these efforts,” added Pestilli. “IU expertise in high-performance computing, infrastructure engineering and big data projects will naturally extend to these new efforts in the neurosciences.”

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