Pitt professor part of team selected by NSF Convergence Accelerator to continue developing predictive technology against biothreats

Pitt Biology Professor and Herbert W. and Grace Boyer Chair in Molecular Biology, Dr. Jim Pipas, is part of a “Computing the Biome” convergent research team that has been awarded a $5 million cooperative agreement to advance to phase 2 of the National Science Foundation’s 2020 Convergence Accelerator program. The team is developing technology to detect biological threats and predict disease outbreaks in major U.S. cities.

NSF is investing $50 million to advance 10 research teams to phase 2, where they will address national-scale societal challenges. Computing the Biome was one of 29 teams to earn a Convergence Accelerator phase 1 award in September 2020.

In the first year, the Computing the Biome effort will focus on monitoring and predicting mosquito-borne diseases, which affect nearly 700 million people globally each year.

Scientists need rich and timely data about the distribution and evolution of species in the environment to predict human disease outbreaks. The first goal of the Computing the Biome team is to build new data streams that combine information such as hyper-local weather, autonomously identified disease transmitting insects and genetically identified viruses and microbes. The second goal is to develop AI systems that use those new data streams to detect and predict existing and emerging biothreats.

The project will first be deployed in Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston. The Pitt team will analyze sequence data obtained from mosquitoes and environmental samples, and apply newly developed, AI-driven computational strategies to identify bacteria, viruses, and other potential pathogens, and to track their movement.

Over the course of the next two years the team—consisting of engineers, computer scientists, biologists, epidemiologists, public health and policy experts from Microsoft’s Premonition, Tomorrow.io, Harris County Public Health, John Hopkins University, University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Vanderbilt University and University of Washington—will also develop a framework for economic sustainability and global scalability to ensure continued impact beyond NSF support.

“A convergence approach, paired with innovation concepts like human-centered design and use-inspired research, is important for solving large-scale national challenges,” said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. “The NSF Convergence Accelerator is a young program, but we have already seen teams like Computing the Biome apply our program fundamentals to move their solution forward for societal impact. We are excited to welcome the Computing the Biome team into phase 2 and to guide the team and their solution to have a positive impact on our environment and the American public.”

About NSF Convergence Accelerator

Research is often driven by a compelling societal or scientific challenge; however, it may take the researcher community years to develop a solution. To deliver tangible solutions that have a nationwide societal impact at a faster pace, the NSF launched the Convergence Accelerator program in 2019. Designed to leverage a convergence approach to transition basic research and discovery into practice, the accelerator uses innovation processes like human-centered design, user discovery, team science and integration of multidisciplinary research and partnerships. Accelerator is making timely investments to solve high-risk societal challenges through use-inspired convergence research.



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