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Online Networking: What’s In It For Research & Scientists?

In the following interviews, we asked five members of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to share why they are excited about UCSF Profiles, UCSF’s first expertise discovery and research networking system, which was developed under the supervision of Griffin Weber, MD, PhD, at Harvard University.

UCSF Profiles provides the ability to search for investigators based on their research expertise. The tool also reveals network relationships between investigators, for example based on co-authorship or similar research experience. It automatically aggregates researcher and publication data from the free public biomedical database PubMed and UCSF’s Human Resources departments. While the data are updated automatically, users can customize their own profile.

Why is UCSF Profiles important?

The Visionary: Dan Lowenstein, MD, UCSF Professor, Vice Chair, Dept. of Neurology, Member of the CTSI Board of Directors

Even in the era of the Internet, it’s challenging for researchers to learn about expertise in research fields outside their own. What we needed was a formal strategy that allowed anyone to learn about the current stage of research and expertise as it exists at UCSF. In my mind that’s one of the most important reasons for having a software product like UCSF Profiles. It enables us to describe in an objective, data-driven manner who is working on what at UCSF.

What problem does UCSF Profiles help solve?

The Visionary: Dan Lowenstein

Let me give you an example. I’m interested in the intersection of the genetic basis of common epilepsies and the determinants of pharmaco-responsiveness. At the moment, the only way I can network with other faculty interested in these topics is basically through my own institutional knowledge or by using search engines like Google. I don’t know whether the number of hits that I get actually represents a complete list or not and I have to wade through mixed results, so this is very inefficient and incomplete. With the full implementation of UCSF Profiles, I think we finally have a convenient and effective system for accessing the full spectrum of knowledge and expertise that exists among our faculty.

How might you use UCSF Profiles?

The Early Adopter: Laurence Huang, MD, UCSF Professor of Medicine, Chief, AIDS Chest Clinic, SFGH

I might use UCSF Profiles to find co-mentors. As a trainee, you don’t want to do exactly what your mentor is doing, otherwise you always walk in their shadow. You want to do something that is similar to your mentor’s area of interest, but to have your own niche. As a mentor, I want to help my mentees find their niche. I can help my own mentees find additional co-mentors that can provide guidance in areas of interest using UCSF Profiles — I couldn’t do this before. I can even learn who has collaborated with people I identify through the tool and contact them to find out whether they are nice to work with. That becomes really powerful.

The Visionary: Dan Lowenstein

I agree. In my role as Director of Physician Scientist Education and Training in the School of Medicine, hardly a day goes by where I don’t get a request from a pre-medical or medical student from anywhere around the country who is looking for a research opportunity at UCSF. They ask for my help in identifying faculty at UCSF doing specific types of research who have an opening in their research group for a trainee and who have a reputation for being good mentors. Currently there is no system in place for identifying those individuals. I’m looking forward to when UCSF Profiles will enable us to link trainees and faculty in a much more efficient way.

The Early Adopter: Ida Sim, PhD, MD, Associate Professor of General Internal Medicine, Director, Center for Clinical and Translational Informatics, UCSF

The tool is surprisingly easy to use, and it’s especially useful for first-cut identification of people in fields I’m not familiar with. It’s complementary to meeting people in person — I can search information about someone before I’m actually meeting this person, or follow up on learning more about someone I met at a meeting. The co-authors network, for example, tells me something about their level of work and scholarship, which would be more difficult to find out using PubMed.

How was UCSF Profiles brought to life?

The Catalyst: Mini Kahlon, PhD, CTSI Chief Information Officer

We knew we needed something that combines Amazon.com type innovations (for example, researchers involved in research X tend to also search for Y) with Facebook strengths (for example, I might want to see the latest publications from the co-authors of your co-authors). Then add a matchmaking component like match.com and we’d really be providing something truly helpful for our research community.

We assessed whether we should build our own tool or use an existing one. At a meeting organized by the Clinical & Translational Science Awards Consortium (CTSA) I learned about a research networking software product developed byHarvard Catalyst (Harvard’s CTSA institute). I was inspired by the smart algorithms it utilized and the ambitious vision of the tool’s designer, Griffin Weber. On top of that, Harvard Catalyst was making this product freely available as open source software.

UCSF became Harvard’s first partner in deploying the open source software. We obviously chose well, today the Profiles community includes 40+ other institutions. We remain close collaborators, with UCSF working on extensions to the software, slated for release this winter, that will be provided back to the open source Profiles Research Networking Software for other institutions to use.

Can academic leaders benefit from UCSF Profiles as well?

The Academic Leader: Margaret Tempero, MD, Deputy Director and Director, Research Programs, UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

From a program-building standpoint, I think UCSF Profiles is awesome. When I build a research program, I need to make sure it’s all-inclusive. I can see how UCSF Profiles helps identify people inside and outside of a department. It helps me figure out which investigators I should invite to the table.

What could UCSF Profiles offer in the future to help the UCSF community in its work?

The Academic Leader: Margaret Tempero

Looking ahead, I think it would be very useful to link investigators to their funded projects. This might be information that is not accessible to the public, but is available to the UCSF community. Right now it is cumbersome to find such information. If your goal is to develop faculty and offer them opportunities, then having evidence of their grant support readily available would help. You’d be able to find everyone who is doing something related to the program you’re building. The same is actually true for young investigators who are looking for mentors. I usually tell them to review the mentor’s history of receiving peer-reviewed grants. This is an important criterion in a mentor, yet the information is hard to retrieve. UCSF Profiles could change this.

From the perspective of a researcher, I can clearly see UCSF Profiles becoming a useful tool to help me search for information about biorepositories. Let’s say I’m interested in collecting serum samples from patients with diabetes because they might have pancreatic cancer. Having an understanding of who is collecting what at UCSF allows us the opportunity to team up and use resources more efficiently.

The Early Adopter: Laurence Huang

Many of us are represented on different websites that all ask for slightly different information. Then, you get these endless requests to update this information on a regular basis. If UCSF Profiles managed to distribute the latest information to other sites, maybe even automatically populated them – that would be a big time saver.

The Catalyst: Mini Kahlon

Interesting that Laurence brings up the challenge of populating multiple websites with information from the tool. In fact, we have launched the ability for any group or individual at UCSF to receive automatic data feeds from UCSF Profiles. The Center for Aids Research (CFAR) has already piloted the service to enhance their new website at http://cfar.ucsf.edu/ . Our goal is to make it as easy as possible not only for others to benefit from the work we’ve done in cleaning up and preparing useful data, but to allow them to innovate beyond our work.

The Early Adopter: Ida Sim

I could see UCSF Profiles providing me information about pending or approved CHR and maybe even NIH applications submitted by UCSF researchers, so that it’s easy for me to assess the projects others are currently working on that are not published yet or what they’re going to do soon. Of course I realize that for us to enter that domain, we need to think carefully about access and permissions.

What are some of the challenges a tool like UCSF Profiles brings?

The Catalyst: Mini Kahlon

The power of UCSF Profiles is in its ability to mine existing data that’s already available either through the Internet, or internally within the institution, and to present the information in ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and networks, for example. On the flip side, such a tool opens up the possibility of revealing too much information or at least so much that it feels intrusive to researchers. We realize this and know that we have to balance innovation with a careful, thoughtful, and user-informed approach to revealing information.

What can UCSF expect from the tool in the future?

The Catalyst: Mini Kahlon

This is truly just the beginning. Currently UCSF Profiles covers only one major group of our community. We plan on adding all the members of the UCSF community that are critical to research, continuing with fellows, residents, and research staff. We will also integrate additional publication sources so that, for example, faculty in the school of nursing or dentistry have more complete profiles, since the publications they publish in may not be available in PubMed. The inclusion of research-descriptive data, like grants and patents, will help tailor the tool further to meet researchers’ information needs.

In addition to that, we’re excited to integrate UCSF Profiles with tools that allow people to not only discover collaborators but to actually bring together a group to work on projects. Further, Profiles will be extended with more specific matchmaking functionality, the first of which will allow mentees, either students or junior faculty, to search for potential mentors.

But our extensions to the tool are only a part of the future for Profiles – Harvard, of course, will continue to improve Profiles, but in addition we are extending the software to make it easy for anyone (for example, other departments at UCSF or other academic institutions) to create new applications that utilize the data and algorithms behind Profiles. Perhaps someone in the Memory & Aging Center has heard from his investigators that they’d like to enhance UCSF Profiles with customized publication feeds from people they have selected as collaborators. We will provide them with all the information they need to build that application themselves. Once built, this application can be then shared with others through an application library, much like the Apple store for the iPhone.

We also recognize if we truly want to help advance research across disciplines and institutions, we will need to reach beyond our institutional walls. To achieve this, we’re helping facilitate a national initiative which will enable UCSF Profiles to communicate with similar tools at other institutions, so our researchers will be able to search for expertise and collaborators across the nation.

Original article was published on the website of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at UCSF

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