Environmental Factor – June 2021: Sharing data is key to environmental health research, experts say


By combining data from different projects and disciplines, Superfonds research program (SRP) scientists will help answer complex and unanswered questions, says SRP director William Suk, Ph.D..

By fostering data sharing, SRP seeks to accelerate scientific discovery, stimulate new collaborations, and increase scientific transparency and rigor. (Photo courtesy of PopTika/Shutterstock.com)

He spoke May 17 at the launch of a webinar series that shows how SRP-funded centers are sharing data to solve real-world environmental health problems.

“This is an exceptional group of presenters with truly innovative ways to accelerate the translation of data into knowledge that will improve human and environmental health,” Suk said.

Bill Suk smiling “At SRP, we are engaged in conversations with our grantees about how best to support data science efforts in the future,” said Suk, featured here at the program’s 2012 annual meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

Data Stewardship

the Risk E-Learning Webinar Series is one of many SRP initiatives designed to improve data sharing. Last year, for example, the program began requiring each of its newly funded centers to include a data management and analytics core that provides data science support and infrastructure.

To accelerate scientific discovery, stimulate new collaborations and increase research transparency, SRP has also created funding supplements for data sharing projects. The webinar series showcases several of these initiatives, which Suk says provide lessons for other researchers about the challenges and opportunities associated with data sharing.

A mighty force

Brittany Saleeby describes a collaborative effort between Duke University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the University of California, Davis, where she is an intern. The SRP-funded project is investigating ways to bring together different sources of data resulting from high-resolution mass spectrometry, which is used to analyze the composition of chemicals in environmental samples.

Saleeby said the project is currently focused on identifying similarities and differences in how collaborating institutions process research information so they can make their datasets more compatible and user-friendly.

“If we are able to overcome these interoperability issues we face, this method would become a powerful force for retroactively analyzing data from other labs, even if the data was collected hundreds of years ago,” she noted.

The tip of the iceberg

Benjamin Bostick, Ph.D.from Columbia University, and Tracy Punshon, Ph.D., from Dartmouth College, explained how they were developing a database of elemental maps. These are images showing where certain elements such as calcium and arsenic are distributed in model organisms, such as the flowering plant Arabidopsis.

Michelle Heacock, Ph.D. Heacock said the SRP aims to help beneficiaries adhere to FAIR Data Principles — findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable — and collaborate between centers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

“What we’re releasing is really just the tip of the data iceberg,” Punshon said. “This is the kind of data that needs to be archived to exploit its full potential because synchrotron time is so competitive.”

Synchrotrons are huge scientific facilities used to produce elementary maps. Punshon said their project focused on archiving data collected from multiple synchrotron facilities over the past decade, with the goal of making the information available to the wider scientific community.

“Punshon and the other speakers spoke about the importance of leveraging all available data,” said the moderator and scientific administrator of SRP Health. Michelle Heacock, Ph.D.. “One of the reasons we wanted to host this series is to raise awareness of these projects and create opportunities for both networking and building on what others have already done.”

chemical catalog

In addition to experts from PRS Centers, the webinar series also features external speakers with complementary expertise in data sharing tools and initiatives.

During the May session, Antony Williams, Ph.D.of the EPA, presented the CompTox Chemical Dashboard, a one-stop shop for chemistry, toxicity and exposure data for over 900,000 chemicals. Williams provided a basic overview of the dashboard, its capabilities, and how it can help environmental scientists find relevant data.

(Marla Broadfoot, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


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