Better solutions for challenges that transcend domains

By: Mari Wigham · 29 January 2018
Category: Uncategorised

Throughout my career in the world of applied research, I have always worked at the interface of various disciplines. In my current job as Food Informatics researcher at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, this situation remains unchanged. With my technical and analytical skills, I have the pleasure of working with nutritional scientists, economists, supply-chain experts and other experts. This has reaffirmed for me, once again, the links between all these various domains and that we could, and should benefit from each other’s knowledge. And, especially, that linked science is the key to improving the daily lives of people.

Here is an example to illustrate this interrelation. Say that we want consumers to make healthy food choices. We want them to eat more tomatoes, for example. Tomatoes contain lycopenes, which reduce the chance of developing cardiovascular diseases. However, some types of tomatoes contain more lycopenes than others. You might say that the healthy choice is also the best choice. However, certain tomato varieties are grown locally, while others are flown in on airplanes from other countries. Thus, healthy is not necessarily sustainable. A great deal of research is involved in determining the nutrient content of a specific tomato variety, as well as establishing the sustainability of the production method. Yet, the scientist specializing in nutrition is not the same scientist who is an expert in sustainability. Moreover, they often don’t even work at the same institute. However, it is clear that a well-substantiated recommendation requires collaboration.

Sustainable food systems for healthy people

This collaboration between the domains can result in mutual benefits. In the ‘Sustainable food systems for healthy people’ project we are working on a data platform that makes it easier for researchers to use knowledge from bordering domains. We do this by creating coherence between the different types of research information. Together with experts, we identify the terms that are used per domain and which relationships between terms are relevant. Based on this we construct an ontology. This is a type of dictionary that allows us to label current research projects and connect and combine results. We are essentially constructing a network of hyperlinks that links bits and pieces of information.

Tracing the connections between domains

Researchers have been waiting for this, as they can now search for datasets in other domains that appear relevant much more easily. This data platform allows them to trace the connections between the domains to find relevant information based on their own datasets. For example, you start with information about the lycopene content of a certain tomato variety, after which you follow the reference to information about its cultivation and concomitant CO2 emissions. As each piece of information lists the right contact person, it makes it even easier to set up a collaboration.

Data platform supports progress for researchers

Building a data platform is incredibly time-consuming. It takes a great deal of time just to understand the domains, never mind the time it takes to discover the links between the various domains. But it’s worth all this time and effort, as it helps researchers progress significantly. This is why we did not develop another new application that unlocks all this data. Instead, we leave the data where it is, and we share clear descriptions of this data via a data platform and include links to where this data can be found.

Better solutions

Eventually, this data platform should result in better solutions for challenges that transcend domains. For example, the cultivation of a healthy tomato variety with a small CO2 footprint, that has a long shelf-life and that can be produced at a profit. After all, we have already found the relevant data and experts. Perhaps we might even find a link for a suitable intervention to encourage the consumption of healthy tomatoes. In order to really create an impact, we need creative researchers who can look beyond the confines of their own domain. By providing them with the right structure, they are able to focus their creativity effectively. And what’s more wonderful than being a part of that?

Want to know more about this topic? Visit Research infrastructure for health and nutrition on wur.nl.

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Mari Wigham

Mari Wigham

Researcher Food Informatics at Wageningen University & Research

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