Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine, and the Digital Humanities

August 5, 2012

I’m very excited to see the NEH press release go out today for the April, 2013 symposium “Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine, and the Digital Humanities.” This symposium, I hope, will make some truly new and valuable connections between the digital humanities and bioinformatics communities.  I’d like to share a bit of background on how the workshop came about.

Shared Horizons will bring together researchers from the digital humanities and bioinformatics to discuss commonalities in research methods and to see what fruitful collaborations might emerge. This is based on the premise that many computationally-based research methods developed for one discipline may indeed be applied in others. Programs like the Digging into Data Challenge have helped to demonstrate that, for example, data mining methods developed by computer scientists (and often used for business analytics) can be successfully applied to humanities and social science questions. The Shared Horizons symposium is attempting to open up a new door – to connect digital humanities scholars with the biomedical community to explore how they might collaborate.

Specifically, the focus for this symposium will be to bring together the digital humanities and the bioinformatics communities --both hybrid fields whose members seek to apply computationally-based research methods to address questions within their larger disciplines (humanities and biomedicine, respectively). We’ll focus on techniques like sequence alignment and network analysis that are already being used, to some extent, within both disciplines. I should also note there are interesting parallels between DH and bioinformatics in the sense that they have both had to grapple with many of the same field-building issues (e.g. how to get credit and recognition within their larger discipline). So that may also make for some interesting side discussions.

The “Shared Horizons” workshop emerged from the June 2011 Digging into Data Challenge conference we held at NEH headquarters. I was chatting with Erez Lieberman Aiden from Harvard (co-author of the Google ngrams paper in Science) and Seth Denbo from MITH and we were discussing how we might bring the DH and bioinformatics fields together to talk. Erez (whose wide disciplinary background includes both biomedicine and history) made the case that many researchers in genomics, bioinformatics, and related fields have experience in data analysis methods that might be quite applicable to questions in the digital humanities. Alas, DH and bioinformatics folks rarely travel in the same circles and don’t have many opportunities to work together. Seth suggested the idea of MITH hosting some kind of gathering at the University of Maryland to try to bring these two worlds together and we started going from there.

It struck me, though, that a missing element was ensuring we had funders from the biomedical world in attendance. This would not only give the symposium more weight and help ensure we get the right people to attend; it would also be an opportunity for the funders to discuss how we might best financially support research that bridged DH and biomedicine. So after many phone calls (and a lead from Dan Cohen – thank you, Dan) we established a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (part of the Department of Health and Human Services).  NIH, as you may know, is the largest research funder in the US and I’m very pleased to be working with them on this new workshop. Jeffrey Reznick, the Chief of the History of Medicine division at NLM, has been a terrific partner and is very interested in helping to establish interdisciplinary connections between the humanities and biomedicine as well as facilitate access to the remarkable collection of historic medical materials his library holds.

Then one more partnership came into place: I was chatting with our colleagues at RCUK and mentioned this forthcoming symposium.  Research Councils UK is an umbrella organization over all the UK research councils (AHRC for humanities, ESRC for social sciences, BBSRC for biomedical research, etc). We have a great relationship with RCUK and already work with them on the Digging into Data Challenge. Once I described the Shared Horizons workshop to them, they were keen to join as partners to bring the UK perspective into the workshop, as they were already interesting in bringing these communities together. They will help bring UK-based DH and biomedical researchers to the symposium so we can make this an international discussion.

The MITH team – Jennifer Guiliano, Seth Denbo, and MITH director and project PI, Neil Fraistat – have put together a terrific program for this workshop. Shared Horizons is a small step – really an opportunity for some early first discussions. But I hope it can lead to new opportunities for research projects between DH and bioinformatics that might not have happened otherwise.

If you have any questions or comments, do get in touch. If you’d like to attend, information about the open call is on the Shared Horizons website. [Edit: Applications to apply are due by December 15, 2012].

Funding information

Funded by NEH Chairman's Cooperative Agreement: HC-50015-12.