Friday Faculty Focus: Kate Cooper

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September 30th, 2016

Dr. Kate Cooper has been a member of the UNO Bioinformatics research group since 2005. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

Dr. Kate Cooper has been a member of the UNO Bioinformatics research group since 2005. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

You may have heard terms like big data and Bioinformatics lately. But what do they mean? KVNO’s Brandon McDermott spoke with a professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Dr. Kate Cooper and filed this week’s Friday Faculty Focus.


Brandon: Dr. Kate Cooper, thanks for joining me.

Dr. Kate Cooper: Thank you for having me.

Brandon: Now you’re the Assistant Professor of Big Data in the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics. Can you kind of explain what that is and what you do?

Dr. Cooper: Yes. So, big data is a larger ‘buzz term’ right now, about how do we deal with this volume, variety, velocity and veracity of data that’s being generated at a very quick rate in today’s world. My background is in bioinformatics and biomedical research. So, my research interests are a spin on that. For example, there are three things that really contribute to your physical health, your individual health: that is your genetics, your environment, and your behaviors.

Now we’re collecting data, not only your medical history, but people are collecting through wearables – how many steps they take per day, what kind of sleep patterns they have, maybe they track their calories in My Fitness Pal. Also, we are able to actually afford a commercial genetics profile now. You can go look at your ancestry or some disease susceptibility on 23andMe.com or ancestry.com. So my research is ‘how do we use computers and computer science and IT to manage all of this data?’, and from noise and kind of a just big raw data heap, if you will, create actionable insights for healthcare.

Brandon: You also touched on teaching the bioinformatics sessions. What is bioinformatics and why is it important?

Dr. Cooper: Bioinformatics is an  interdisciplinary focus that combines mathematics, molecular biology, genetics, computer science, a little bit of physics, a little calculus – a little bit of everything, really – to address the growing need for methods to analyze data in the biological realm. In 1999, the Human Genome Project was started and the goal of that was to map out the human genome and kind of identify what genes and what mutations are responsible for human disease, also, for making some people have ‘superhuman powers.’ Dean Karnazes is an example. He’s a ultra-marathoner and he can clear lactic acid from his body really quickly. So the goal of bioinformaticians is to be able to manage that data through the power of computing.

Brandon: Now, you’ve been a member of women in IT engagement links since 2013. What is your opinion of women in IT jobs and why is it important to have more women involved in IT?

Dr. Cooper: The research has shown that it is important to have diversity on any sort of team disciplinary approach and that improves outcomes as well. So having not only women but minorities integrated in IT is something that can benefit the whole field. Traditionally IT has been a male dominated field but it’s certainly getting better now and UNO has played a huge role. We have a number of outreach programs to try to increase the diversity of our programs – not only in Bioinformatics, in the whole college itself – and increase interest.

Brandon: You’ve already touched on it a little bit through the outreach programs but what are some ways to help foster more growth of women and minorities working in IT?

Dr. Cooper: So one of the biggest things that we do are these outreach programs to expose people at a younger age and let them know that these are things that are approachable that they can actually do. For example, we have our CodeCrush program which is for 8th and 9th grade girls. They come in and they learn about a variety of things: bioinformatics- from me- IT innovation, computer science, robotics, and gaming – this sort of thing. That’s the best way – to allow them to come in in a non-competitive setting and see what they can really do. With IT, with computer science, what we tend to find is that it’s not a question of ‘am I smart enough to do this?’ If you want to do it, you can. You just have to put the pedal to the metal sometimes.

Brandon: Is there anything I didn’t cover that you’d like to add before we go?

Dr. Cooper: I think the biggest thing to remember when coming to a challenging discipline like bioinformatics, be it an A+ student or somebody who’s really questioning their confidence in their abilities, is that the overall goal of my field is to improve individual health and the health of the community. So if you’re looking for a way to improve the public, or improve people’s lives or actually make a difference, this is an area where you can come in, have creativity, get a large skill set, and be able to impact people and have the potential to impact people’s lives in the future, as well.

Brandon: Dr. Kate Cooper, thanks again for joining us on the show.

Dr. Cooper: Thank you so much for having me.

 

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