The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a mission to create the expertise, information and tools that people and communities need to protect and improve public health. To achieve this mission, we need to understand the massive amounts of data that we collect in order to communicate vital information to keep people safe and healthy. Let’s take flu, for example. It is important for people to know when an outbreak occurs, how to avoid catching the flu, and what to do if you do get sick. Yet, in order to share that information and make specific recommendations about the flu, there are massive amounts of data and research that need to be gathered and analyzed. The advances in our ability to store, retrieve and send large amounts of information during the last decade has resulted in opportunities to manage and use big data to improve public health. These advances are helping us to more quickly identify and control local and global threats. Although CDC does this very well, we saw a need to tap into engineering and high performance computing expertise – that is not common at CDC – in order to build a state-of-the-art capability for managing and using large amounts of data to improve public health. We didn’t have to look far because we found that expertise right in Atlanta, at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT). We decided to formalize a scientific collaboration that would allow us to work on joint projects that are important to solve challenges at CDC. As an academic partner, GT gives CDC the robust advantage of leveraging the skills and expertise in the combined fields of computing, biology, engineering, science and management. In addition, the proximity of the GT campus to CDC provides the unique opportunity to tap into the undergraduate and graduate student talent in order to build a new and unique future workforce within CDC. Below are a few specific questions we (IDEA Lab) posed about the collaboration:
Is there an overarching mission for the partnership with GT?
The mission is to establish the infrastructure to foster sustainable collaborations and partnerships that yield high public health impact by improving population health on a large scale.
What are the primary objectives?
- Apply engineering and computing tools and technologies to address emerging public health issues and challenges related to big data.
- Expose GT students and faculty to the public health framework within CDC.
- Build a new and unique future workforce at CDC.
- Provide CDC scientists the opportunity to gain biomedical engineering and bioinformatics knowledge and skills through collaborative projects and activities.
What are the broad components of the collaboration?
- Research: Activities will include “quick wins” and longer-term projects.
- Training: Within the collaborative research activities, GT undergraduate and graduate students will be able to apply their design and technology knowledge to real-life public health challenges. Additional opportunities will be available via the GA Tech Capstone Design program, as well as the more advanced Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program. Internship and fellowship opportunities will also be created.
- Education: Seminars and workshops on topics of mutual interest will be offered to bring together CDC and GT leading experts in specific areas to discuss challenges and potential solutions.
- Scientific Exchanges: Opportunities will be identified for CDC scientists to spend time at GT and for GT faculty to be at CDC.
Has this been an innovative way of recruiting talent to CDC?
The hope is that the collaboration will attract young talent with skills in engineering and high performance computing to CDC. At this point in the relationship, our greatest success in this area has been to expose students to public health and to demonstrate how their training can be applied to real-world challenges in public health. We see lots of excitement from the students!
What is the single most important aspect to building a successful collaboration with an academic partner?
For us, the most important factor is to have a dedicated person who is the day-to-day contact and can help to facilitate and leverage resources in order to build a sustainable relationship.
What are the biggest challenges you faced while trying to build this initiative and how did you overcome them?
Working with scientists at CDC to get them to resist the tendency to know the answer or outcome they want when working on collaborative projects with GT. By holding back and letting the creative process unfold, we end up with innovative and more cutting-edge solutions that were not initially on our radar. Another challenge was helping faculty and leadership at GT understand the constraints in working with the federal government. Issues such as basic access to data and funding needed to be explained in order to manage expectations and reduce any potential conflicts of interest.
What are the results so far?
Because of the level of enthusiasm and interest to work together, we have been able to develop dozens of student projects led by a CDC subject matter expert and a GT faculty advisor. In addition, we were able to fund several large research projects with GT faculty that are providing solutions that are mission critical to the Agency. We also have held several interesting seminars and workshops on topics that are important to CDC such as bioinformatics; data visualization, and global preparedness and response.
If you had the opportunity, would there be things you would do differently in the design and launch of this program?
The nice part about the design of the collaboration is that we considered the process and activities to be dynamic based on the needs of the Agency. This provides the ability to change priorities and directions as new issues emerge that require an engineering or high performance computing solution.