Undergraduate research: Using big data to study Alzheimer's
“The more data you have, the more noise you have. When you are talking about the lives of people, this becomes very important. It makes your work important.”
Speaking is Qijia Jiang, a senior in statistics and electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at Rice University. The lives she’s talking about might be any of us—that is, anyone who lives long enough to develop Alzheimer’s disease, which affects about six percent of those who live until at least age 65. Between 21 and 35 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Jiang works with Big Data—vast amounts of vital statistics, cognitive scores and medical information about populations in Europe and North America. Her academic mentor is Genevera Allen, assistant professor of statistics and of ECE at Rice, and of pediatrics-neurology at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Together, they have developed algorithms to analyze such huge reservoirs of information. “The algorithms are very complex and very sophisticated. Early diagnosis today is really not possible. There is no cure, treatments or preventive steps that people can take,” Jiang said.
In the fall of 2014, Jiang and her team, Rice Fighting Owl-zheimer’s, placed fourth nationally in the Alzheimer’s Disease Big Data DREAM Challenge. The eventual goal is to rapidly identify predictive Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers that can be used to improve Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment.
“We looked at the MRI data and the SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) data on predicting the cognitive scoring – how much people have lost cognitively,” she said. The team was also invited to contribute to a paper to be submitted to Nature Neuroscience. Jiang is exploring this data further as part of her senior design project.
In the summer of 2013, Jiang worked as an intern with Lin Zhong, associate professor of ECE and of computer science, and the Rice Efficient Computing Group. Using signal-processing techniques, she wrote a program on Rice’s Wireless Open-Access Research Platform (WARP) in order to facilitate beam-forming experiments of channel capacity.
That same year, Jiang also served as a research assistant with a team headed by Junichiro Kono, professor of ECE at Rice, and including researchers from Sandia National Laboratories, who used carpets of aligned carbon nanotubes to create a solid-state electronic device designed to detect polarized light across the visible and infrared spectrums.
“We are given research that is not just theoretical. We are looking at real lives,” Jiang said.