OHSU School of Medicine Researchers Receive NSF Grant to Help Develop Better Internet Search Engines

11/03/03    Portland, Ore.

Goal is to improve health care professionals' and researchers' access to human genome information.

Medical researchers and health care professionals today can access information that just a few decades ago their predecessors never dreamed would be available. With just a few strokes on a keyboard, they can tap into MEDLINE, the National Library of Medicine's database of more than 11 million bibliographic citations, as well as thousands of other Web sites and online resources.

As ideal as this might seem, the sheer volume of valuable information to sift through can be daunting, according to William Hersh, M.D., professor and chairman of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology (DMICE) in the OHSU School of Medicine.

The National Science Foundation seems to agree. The NSF has awarded Hersh and his colleagues $1.7 million to support their research evaluating the retrieval of genomics documents based on queries about gene function and judgments about the relevance of documents. This research is being done as part of the Text Retrieval Conference (TREC), which attracts the world's top information retrieval researchers from academia and industry to participate in an annual evaluation of search engines.

"The quantity and complexity of genetic research information out there is staggering," Hersh said. "Ultimately, our goal is to design systems that simplify the search process. We want to make it possible for researchers to quickly and accurately access the information, people and resources they need to advance their science. It's about using technology to help save lives."

Ten "tracks" will be held during TREC 2003. New this year is the genomics track, which Hersh chairs. Each track focuses on a particular information retrieval problem. Among this year's tracks are the Web track, the video track, the question-answering track and the filtering track.

The National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) conducts TREC. Participants are provided with a standardized set of test documents and questions for each track. They then run their own research on the data and return to NIST a list of the retrieved documents. Test documents are released in the spring, research groups run their queries over the summer, and results are presented when TREC participants meet in November at NIST headquarters.

TREC was established in 1992 to support research within the information retrieval community. Its goals include encouraging research; creating an open exchange of research ideas; speeding the transfer of technology from research labs into commercial products; and increasing the availability of the most current evaluation techniques.

Medical informatics is the application of information technology to health and biomedicine. OHSU has an international reputation in the academic discipline of medical informatics, with more students than any similar program in the world. The university has awarded about 30 master's degrees in medical informatics since 1998 and has 60 students currently enrolled. A doctoral program began this year, and a postdoctoral fellowship has existed since 1992.

In addition, OHSU was among the first to offer a distance-learning program in medical informatics. About 200 students from around the world currently take the distance-learning classes, which lead to a graduate certificate. Graduates of OHSU's programs find work with hospitals and clinics, health product vendors and manufacturers, and other universities.

Visit http://trec.nist.gov for information about TREC 2003. Log on to http://medir.ohsu.edu/~genomics/ for genomics track details.

Hersh is secretary of the American Medical Informatics Association, a member of the editorial board of the association's journal and a fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics. He is the author of the recently published book, Information Retrieval: A Health & Biomedical Perspective (Second Edition).

Note: More information and a photo of Hersh is available at http://www.billhersh.info