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Rights: The University of Waikato
Published 29 July 2008

Associate Professor Rod Dunbar (University of Auckland) talks about research design, beginning with a creative idea and culminating in a new and useful way of communicating this data easily.


Biology at the moment is generating an awful lot of data. We have these very high throughput techniques, both in the lab and in medicine, that can generate mountains of new information. One of the problems we have is trying to formulate all that vast amount of information into ways that we can communicate easily and so that we can understand the patterns. And this project began, really, because I had seen a presentation from the Sydney Melanoma Unit. And the way that they were presenting their data, I knew we had resources in Auckland that would improve the presentation of that data and enable us to communicate it and analyse it in different ways.

So, in the first phase of the project, really what we do is we come up with a plan that is an idea and that is a creative process. In this case, what we imagined was that we would be able to build a map of the human body and show something important about the way the human body worked. And that map wasn't in existence when we imagined the project. We then had to find a source of data that will enable us to build that map, and we had to find some methods that would enable us to construct it, and we also had to find some things that people would find interesting and helpful, particularly in medicine, that we would be able to address with that map. And so we built a plan, and that plan formed the basis of the beginning of Hayley's thesis.

Hayley's project is what we call an interdisciplinary project, so rather than being just restricted to biology or chemistry or computer science, you can choose projects which have aspects of many of these different disciplines. So in the case of Hayley's project, there was biological questions that I was really interested in addressing, and I knew that the Bioengineering Institute had some computerised tools that would be able to help us address those questions. So in talking to Nick Smith, who is Hayley's co-supervisor, we came up with the plan together – me really talking about the biological and medical aspects of what I thought we needed to do and Nick really coming at it from the computational angle.

So, in essence, what I did was I set up a collaboration between Sydney Melanoma Unit and the Maurice Wilkins Centre, and particularly with the Bioengineering Institute who are experts in taking this kind of complex data and formulating it into forms that can communicate the patterns behind the data much more easily.

Dr Roger Uren
Dr Nicolas Smith