Biological research is exploding with genomic, molecular, and chemical data. But analyzing all that information has been difficult and slow, in part because biologists haven’t had good ways to visualize the data—to see it represented graphically on screen so as to help them spot trends and make comparisons. University of Utah computer science professor Miriah Meyer is addressing that problem by developing programs that make it easier for scientists to explore the data they’re generating. For instance, Meyer has built an interactive program that lets researchers compare different organisms’ genomes, which is useful for understanding evolutionary trends. Scientists also benefit when something doesn’t look right on the screen, because that can reveal a mistake in their data that might otherwise take months to uncover.
Although custom visualization tools are used in many other fields, such as economics, computer science, and engineering, they have been surprisingly slow to spread to biology, says Angela DePace, a biologist at Harvard who has collaborated with Meyer. “More often than not, biologists make do with out-of-the-box solutions that are difficult to tailor to their needs,” she says. That tailoring is just what Meyer tries to do. She spends months working with scientists to understand the specifics of their projects—and how a graphical representation can help. —Emily Singer