Student researcher wrestling with big data and a ‘tiny assassin’

Paul Mayne // Western News

Computer Science PhD student Kemi Ola is developing software to quickly analyze massive quantities of data and visualize them in a way that intuitively makes sense for researchers, physicians and the general public.

Kemi Ola’s research mission is to dethrone the deadliest animal on the planet – the mosquito.

Consider these tiny assassins transmit life-threatening diseases, including malaria, that collectively kill more than one million people every year. With rising cross-border trade, international tourism and global-warming, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are reappearing in regions where they had been eradicated as well as spreading to new geographic locations, including North America.

“I have personally endured the full assault of malarial fever and it is not something I would wish upon anyone,” Ola said.

Her perspective is shared by numerous public health professionals who are working with officials, physicians and the public to prevent the rise of mosquito-borne diseases the world over. Ironically, one of the major challenges they face is the overwhelming quantity of available data.

To come up with effective health-management plans, they often need to combine intuition and on-the-job experience with volumes of information that could fill up hockey rinks.

“We are woefully inadequate at analyzing such large volumes of data quickly and efficiently,” Ola continued.

As a Computer Science PhD student, and as a member of the aptly named INSIGHT group at Western (Human-Centered Informatics & Interactive Visual Interfaces), she is developing software to quickly analyze massive quantities of data and visualize them in a way that intuitively makes sense.

‘Trying to make sense’ seems to be a well-worn phrase in her world. She regularly frequents art galleries and museums, getting inspiration to tackle her own work, that of “converting information through a visual medium that facilitates understanding.”

As a passionate teacher, she is aware of the importance of communicating information in a way easily understood and assimilated. Apart from being a teaching assistant, a former Computer Science outreach coordinator and one of the organizers for this year’s conference on science education, Ola spent a year teaching computer science to undergraduates in Nigeria. She strongly believes in “imparting knowledge but also instilling in students a desire to seek it.” As one of Western’s Learning Development Fellows, she applies her teaching philosophy to build bridges between the instructor and the student.

In the context of her own research, Ola bridges the distance between human and computer.

While computers are capable of handling large amounts of data with a well-defined initial set of conditions, humans are more adept at working with the fuzzier, more ill-defined questions that call for active, on-the-fly decision making. A computer could easily multiply three 10-digit numbers within seconds, but would struggle with deciding whether we should watch a movie on Friday night or Saturday afternoon. The latter is a nebulous, ill-defined problem with numerous conditions that we solve quite easily and on a daily basis.

“If an epidemiologist wants to track the outbreak of the West Nile Virus in London, how does she divide tasks between herself and the computer and how does she incorporate previous malarial data in order to deal with the current situation?” Ola asked.

She is essentially trying to combine the creative problem-solving dexterity inherent in the human mind with the sheer processing power of computers.

“I have seen friends die unnecessarily because of the lack of public health awareness or resources,” Ola continued. An equally important part of her work is targeted toward conveying public health data to the general population that they understand the risks and are aware of the steps to take to protect their health.

As a young girl growing up in a traditionally conservative Nigerian society, Ola said people laughed at her unconventional academic and career path focused in the areas of math and computer science. Now, armed with undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer engineering, math and computer science, sneers are replaced with quiet admiration as she equips the medical community and the public with newer, more efficient ways to use public health data in order to make informed decisions and implement better health policies.