The life force of big data

Professor Carolyn McGregor with an infant simulatorProfessor Carolyn McGregor’s research could not only save newborns, but help astronauts stay alive on Mars.

In the neonatal intensive care environment, a newborn’s life can change in a single heartbeat. It is daunting how much can be missed in just a few moments.

“A baby’s heart beats more than 7000 times an hour, they breathe more than 2000 times,” explains Professor Carolyn McGregor AM, whose experience in big data is helping neonatologists gather information needed to save these tiny lives.

It’s a challenge for clinicians in neonatal intensive care units: diagnostic equipment picks up around 90 million data points per day, which are then summarised at hourly intervals before scrolling out of the machine’s memory.

“As a patient’s condition changes, initially it can be very subtle,” Professor McGregor explains from her home in Ontario, Canada. “I realised that they didn’t have a platform that could take in all of this data and help them to watch, and that we could learn from all of that data – things that we haven’t learned before."

The ability to process such information would be a breakthrough that could lead to earlier detection of infection and disease, and reduce mortality. Professor McGregor’s Artemis Project – named after the Greek goddess of childbearing – aims to do just that; the health analytics platform enables real-time analysis of multiple data streams, with an enhanced ability to see patterns in high-frequency physiological data.

Professor Carolyn McGregor with studentsThe project has personal significance. In 1999, Professor McGregor’s first child was born premature – at just 27 weeks gestation – and with a rare chromosomal disorder. Sadly, she passed away.

“I see babies, even now, when I go into the unit that are about the same size as her. It’s a constant reminder for me of how real a problem it is … that this affects people every day.”

Professor McGregor’s undergraduate computing science degree, undertaken at UTS through a cadetship with St George Bank, laid the foundation for a specialisation in big data analytics. Her early career saw her designing and building executive information systems for some of Australia’s leading corporations. She saw many companies struggle with a lack of synergy between business strategy, operations and measurement, and returned to UTS to research intelligent business workflow systems through a PhD.

It was here that she met a neonatologist looking to better utilise data at the bedside and saw an opportunity to use her skills for greater human good. She established a health informatics research program at the University of Western Sydney, and within it, the early research that would become the Artemis Project.

In 2007, Professor McGregor was appointed the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), where her research project grew and new collaborations followed. In 2010 the Artemis platform became cloud-based, offering increased accessibility for hospitals everywhere. Its twin project, Apollo, provides a platform for in-home and remote monitoring, outside the hospital setting.

Now Artemis is headed for deep space. Working with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, she is adapting the system to monitor the health of astronauts for the planned mission to Mars in 2030. “I was a keynote speaker at an innovation summit, and followed on from a former astronaut (Dr Dafydd ‘Dave’ Williams) who was himself an emergency physician,” she recalls. Hearing each other’s presentations and seeing potential for collaboration, the pair caught up afterwards.

Professor Carolyn McGregor with midwifery students“There are actually commonalities between a neonate and an astronaut,” she says.

“It’s one of the few times for a human that you have to deal with adaption.”

During the challenging mission, there will be weeks at a time when the crew are out of contact with mission control. “If we can work out a way to give them knowledge and tools on board the spacecraft, then they can have some autonomy in their own healthcare during those times.”

While returning to Australia is on the cards for Carolyn and her young family, it’s a way off yet as there’s still a lot to achieve in Canada.

“I have a brand new project that I’m really excited about which is called Athena: named after the Greek goddess of strategic warfare, intelligence and wisdom,” she shares. Working with tactical operators, such as police SWAT teams, she’s developing a platform to monitor participants’ physiology during virtual reality training scenarios.

“There’s a growing problem with things like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions, and we have great potential to completely revolutionise the mental health landscape for things like depression and PTSD.”

In the meantime, Professor McGregor is taking the lead on building collaborative research partnerships between UOIT and Australia. “I’m interested in exploring the potential of the new UTS Data Arena – it’s actually a really good fit with my research” she says. “Our faculty here also has an active gaming program, and I could see applications in the serious gaming space.”

Story: Jenifer Waters

Dr Carolyn McGregor on big data research in health