Never before in the history of the world have we had so much information at our fingertips. Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (that’s 25 with 17 zeros on the end), which means 90% of all the information in the world is less than two years old.
How can we make sense of the world, when our senses are overloaded by information? Computing researchers at the University of Derby are hoping to answer this, and are working to turn some of this data into valuable insights on next generation medicines and the fundamental structure of the universe.
Recreating the big bang
An eight-member research team at Derby, led by Professor Nick Antonopoulos and Professor Ashiq Anjum, is working with scientists at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, to identify new particles in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It works by firing two high-energy particle beams towards each other close to the speed of light. When the particle beams collide, sensors within the LHC take readings for scientific analysis.
One of the experiments being carried out at the LHC is called ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) and it is this project that the team from Derby are working on. The ALICE project looks at a state of matter called quark-gluon plasma to learn how the universe formed after the big bang. Scientists recreate conditions similar to the big bang by colliding lead ion particles in the LHC, which generates temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun’s core. Under these conditions, the protons and neutrons within atoms begin to break down into quark-gluon plasma. When this substance cools, scientists can observe how it begins to create the particles that make up matter.
These experiments generate a huge amount of data that needs to be stored and analysed before new insights can be gained, which is where Derby’s research team comes in. The quantities of data involved are too large even for supercomputers to handle effectively, so researchers adopt a ‘distributed systems’ approach, where data is processed by a network of computers around the world. In addition to this distributed system support, Derby’s researchers are also working on the development of algorithms that can help physicists interpret the data faster and more accurately.
The future of medicine
Professor Anjum and a team of six researchers are also working to bring their data handling expertise to bear in medicine, collaborating with the multinational pharmaceutical company Roche. One of the things the team are looking at is the emerging field of personalised medicines, which are tailored to a patient’s unique genetic profile.
The challenge lies around sequencing a patient’s genomic data and integrating it with their clinical records to produce new insights. This process typically takes weeks, which slows down the treatment process and reduces the capacity of clinicians to do this for all patients. To address this issue, Professor Anjum and his team are developing computer algorithms that can speed up the process considerably and allow doctors to handle a greater volume of patients. Alongside this, the team are working to improve access to medical records so that doctors can make clinical decisions quicker. By tagging records as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, according to how often the data is used, the team can streamline the vast quantities of information stored on medical databases, making it more accessible for healthcare professionals. The hope is that innovations like these could deliver significant efficiency gains for the NHS and other medical providers.
In addition the team are exploring how computer algorithms can be used to speed up the process of developing new drugs. What is now a very labour-intensive process, involving hundreds of people analysing research reports, could be streamlined using algorithms to synthesise the information. This approach also opens up the opportunity of market regulators being able to monitor the development process in real-time, which would speed up the process of gaining regulatory approval for new medicines.
Improving the justice system for non-English speakers
How can we ensure that the justice system treats people fairly in cases where people’s first language isn’t English? As part of her PhD studies, Lauren Wilson is working with constabularies across the UK to look at the training that interpreters receive and the role that emotional bias can play in the outcome of legal cases.
“Police officers get a lot of training on how to question people as part of their investigations, however the role of the interpreter has received less attention”, says Lauren. “One of the main issues is that there is not a 1:1 correlation between languages, and how things are phrased can subtly affect the meaning. It’s therefore up to the interpreter to decide how they think things should be expressed in English. Interpreters have to provide a translation straight away, so there is less time to correct any errors. This is a problem because small details can have a big impact in a legal context.”
The interpreter’s emotional response to the situation can affect the accuracy of the English interpretation. This is especially problematic where there are distressing details, such as cases of sexual abuse, Lauren says: “People have a tendency to avoid talking about disturbing topics, so there is a danger of interpreters summarising what has been said, instead of going into all the details. There have been cases where asylum claims have been rejected by the authorities because of a lack of detail about the crimes committed against them. However, the details may have been there in the original statement, but they may have become less clear in the English interpretation.”
In cases of human trafficking, the role of the interpreter is especially important, Lauren acknowledges: “Many victims cannot speak English well enough to get by on their own, so much of the communication goes through their trafficker. Every opportunity for people to be identified as victims of human trafficking is important, so we need to make sure that the authorities can get a good interpretation of the interview.”
Protecting endangered species with technology
Researchers at Derby are pioneering new scientific techniques that are helping conservationists protect endangered species in the wild. Chris Troth is carrying out a study of crayfish in the UK as part of his doctoral research and is using a technique called environmental DNA – or eDNA for short – to monitor native white-clawed crayfish.
The white-clawed crayfish are an endangered species that is threatened by an invasive population of North American signal crayfish, which carry a disease known as ‘crayfish plague’. Consequently, numbers are thought to have declined between 50-80% in the last ten years.
“One of the problems facing conservationists is that the methods traditionally used to detect species can damage habitats and contribute to the spread of crayfish plague”, Chris says. “Using eDNA allows researchers to avoid these dangers and has the added advantage of being faster and cheaper to carry out. Researchers take a sample of water, which can be analysed in a laboratory to determine which species are present.”
Using the eDNA approach, Chris has been able to identify previously unknown populations of whiteclawed crayfish, which will help conservationists to monitor and protect the species. He is also working with Bristol Zoo on their ‘Ark Sites’ project to set up protected waterways for white-clawed crayfish.