Professors collaborate at the intersection of tech and health

When people don’t understand their medical test results, “The very first place they go is Google,” said UWM Sociology professor Noelle Chesley.

Armed with that information, Chesley and her collaborators, Psychology professor Hobart Davies and Professor Jake Luo from the College of Health Sciences, saw a golden opportunity. Luo, who specializes in health informatics and big data analysis, began trawling through all of the health questions that people posted on Yahoo! Answers and, with help from Chesley and Davies, began to analyze them. They found many people didn’t understand their test results or were lacking emotional support after a difficult diagnosis.

Using that data, Luo’s in the process of building a cellphone app to help analyze medical test results in a patient-friendly way.

It’s the kind of project that the TecHealth Initiative is all about.

Noelle Chesley

The TecHealth Initiative is part-partnership, part-catalyst with the mission to “harness
and develop regional, inter-institutional, and trans-disciplinary strengths to solve problems at the intersection of health and technology,” Chesley said. That means both tackling public health concerns and fostering the university and community partnerships needed to do so. Eventually, Chesley hopes that stakeholders like UWM, the Milwaukee Common Council, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette University, local hospital networks and others might come together to solve healthcare issues under the TecHealth banner.

“We are thinking about generating innovative research by leveraging different people from different disciplines, and then we can form a hub to do this research together,” Luo said.

Founded by Luo, Chesley, and Davies in September 2017, the Initiative was born out of a UWM effort to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration. They were seated together during a UWM Office of Research workshop meant to introduce faculty in different disciplines. The three found they had much in common and began to find ways to work together.

Hobart Davies

“We do have a few projects with a research focus under the TecHealth umbrella,” said Luo. “For example, I do social media data science analysis. I want to leverage skills from [Chesley] and [Davies] to look into our data based on the research on social media to conduct surveys, which I’m not very experienced at.”

The three have several other TecHealth projects on the horizon, including using big data and technological approaches to research community understanding and concern regarding lead in Milwaukee’s drinking water, and using technology and Google surveys to research how families feel about using algorithms to predict incidences of sexual assault or teen pregnancy.

“The fact that we have a large portion of the population that doesn’t have any sense of the potential power and the potential for misuse of predictive algorithms is the most concerning thing to me. This is already happening,” Davies said.

“This is exactly why social scientists and computational scientists need to work together,” Chesley added.

Jake Luo

To address that need, the trio have begun hosting gatherings meant to introduce researchers in all different areas. UWM researchers in communication, marketing, health sciences, sociology, psychology, information technology, and more are periodically invited to attend TecHealth workshops to learn how they can benefit each other’s research efforts.

The last workshop in April focused on the role of big data – extremely large datasets that can reveal complex patterns – in health care and the ways different disciplines can use big data to further research. The TecHealth Initiative will host more workshops in the future focusing on different technologies and building cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Right now, the workshops are funded with monies from an internal grant program at UWM. The challenge, Davies said, will be finding more funding as the TecHealth Initiative grows. There is little support for cross-disciplinary collaboration, but that’s something the TecHealth founders say has to change.

“Making progress on a lot of scientific problems moving forward is going to require team-based, cross-disciplinary collaboration and learning how to leverage different forms of expertise,” Chesley said. “You’re not moving science forward anymore with doing your solitary analysis on your one single project.”

“Primarily we are focused on health care and leveraging some of the social science technology and methodologies to do this research, but we’re open for the whole campus and other disciplines to join us,” Luo said. “We are building the foundation.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science