National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health
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Download Entire Issue (PDF): 1.5MB Spring 2007  •  Vol. XXXI, No. 2



  • Cover Story

Critical Connections

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Cover Story

Critical Connections

Linking Researchers Through “Virtual” Networks

Many IDeA states face the challenge of rural or isolated locations. To overcome the distance between institutions and enhance the research capacity in the state, Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge constructed a network to encourage partnerships. The network uses cutting-edge technology, called Access Grid, so that research groups at different sites can interact over high-speed Internet connections. For example, using audio and video conferencing, people can meet “virtually” for lab meetings, classes, and mentoring. The effort is led by Harold Silverman, a professor at LSU in Baton Rouge, and his team of faculty and staff. “One reason for having the Access Grid is that we have programs running at bigger institutions that we thought some of the smaller institutions could take advantage of,” says Silverman. “We also wanted to be able to move large packets of real-time data between researchers and to facilitate collaborations.”

The project had an interesting start. The State of Louisiana had set aside some money from the 1997 tobacco settlement to create health centers of excellence. The LSU main campus in Baton Rouge and the LSU Eye Center decided to spend the money to build an Access Grid network. “The process was working nicely,” recalls Silverman. “So, when we saw the initial NCRR call for creating networks, we thought it would be a good chance to bring the primarily undergraduate institutions onto the grid.”

Access Grid, funded by the IDeA program, enables research groups at different sites in Louisiana to interact over high-speed Internet connections. The network has been particularly helpful to researchers who were displaced because of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo courtesy of Louisiana State University)

When Silverman and his colleagues began building the physical infrastructure for the Access Grid, most campuses had little or no equipment in place to support the effort. Today the Access Grid links four large research centers—two medical schools in New Orleans, including Tulane University; one in Shreveport; and the LSU main campus—and four primarily undergraduate institutions—Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge; the University of Louisiana in Monroe; Louisiana Tech University in Ruston; and Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

In 2006, the governor of Louisiana pledged more than $40 million over 10 years to support the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI), a high-capacity network connecting mainframe computers at Louisiana’s major research universities. “LONI is required for computational and informatics advances to drive research,” says Silverman. “IDeA funding and collaboration were a nucleus for these advances in Louisiana.”

Sumeet Dua, an assistant professor of computer science at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, found a mentor at LSU in New Orleans, 300 miles away. Together, Dua and Hilary Thompson, associate professor in the Department of Public Health at LSU, are developing new bioinformatics tools to analyze the expression of all genes in the eye to identify patterns associated with loss of vision and other disease states. When Dua joined the program in 2002, his university did not yet have an Access Grid node. “That is something I helped establish,” he says. “The Access Grid has given us unique opportunities. I can work with leading mentors around the state and beyond without leaving my institution.”

Sumeet Dua, assistant professor of computer science at Louisiana Tech University, discusses data with student Pradeep Chowriappa. High-speed Internet connections funded by the IDeA program link together researchers and students at eight Louisiana research centers and undergraduate institutions. (Photo courtesy of the College of Engineering and Science, Louisiana Tech University)

Thompson and Dua were able to continue their collaboration, even when Thompson was displaced from his laboratory in New Orleans for several months as a result of Hurricane Katrina. This was possible through the Access Grid communication between Louisiana Tech and Baton Rouge, where Thompson had temporarily moved. Based on the research he has carried out so far and the equipment he has been able to purchase with IDeA funding, Dua says he is now in a position to apply for more NIH grants.

“The barriers to collaboration tended to be distance and a lack of understanding of the roles and missions of other institutions and what constraints they work under,” says Silverman. Putting the network together forced university administrators and information technology specialists to visit each others’ institutions and communicate, both in person and by using the virtual connection. The process has, in turn, enabled a greater understanding among institutions. “The evidence of success is when you can transfer what we have done to the political realm of the state,” says Silverman. “When the governor jumps on board and says, ‘I would like to continue putting money in to build the network,’ the small steps we took initially among a few institutions have now multiplied.”

Louisiana, Montana, and West Virginia illustrate the diversity of the IDeA programs. Each is facing unique challenges and developing different strategies to overcome them, but the grantees are making strides. “In the future, we hope to see these states participate fully in the research endeavor and successfully compete for NIH funding across the board,” says NCRR’s Taylor. “We would like to see pipelines established to produce homegrown researchers. Our goal is to address the health disparities of the local populations in IDeA states and, ultimately, improve the health of the nation.”

To Learn More: For more information about the IDeA program, visit the Institutional Development Award page of the NCRR Web site.