What’s In A Name? At RENCI, It’s Solving Problems Through Data Science

RENCI logo


Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) may be the most successful organization in North Carolina that few people have ever heard of. But that’s about to change.

While it may never be a household name, RENCI is destined to become better known. Little more than a decade since its launch by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- in partnership with Duke and NC State universities -- it has built an international reputation in data science and cyberinfrastructure.

Today RENCI is one of the country’s leading experts at collecting, storing, managing and analyzing a wide variety of data from scientists, research institutions, universities and businesses across the country. It develops software that makes the information easier to share among those groups. And it uses data to help solve some of the most daunting challenges in North Carolina and beyond.

Stanley Ahalt
Stanley Ahalt (right) collects team notes at a data translator workshop.
-- RENCI photos


“We always ask ourselves first if we’re allocating our resources to best benefit this state and its people,” the organization’s director, Stanley Ahalt, Ph.D., said recently. But RENCI’s reach doesn’t stop at the state line. It also supports universities and research groups across the country and around the globe that work on data-driven solutions to promote better health, create a safer environment, and improve the economic and business climate.  

Health -- and more precisely precision health -- is a RENCI priority, Ahalt said. An ongoing Obesity Hub project led by the Gordon-Larsen Lab at UNC and RENCI is a case in point. It uses data to understand why people who eat the same diets and get the same amount of exercise gain weight at different rates. By examining patients’ genetic, metabolic, dietary and lifestyle information, researchers hope to spot trends that will lead to more-effective and individualized obesity treatments.

RENCI also is heavily involved in asthma studies, integrating clinical and environmental data in the search for better treatments. It has, for example, collaborated with Sarav Arunachalam, Ph.D., at UNC’s Institute for the Environment, to develop new ways to determine how time of year and time of day, humidity, wind flow and other factors affect ambient air quality that impacts asthma sufferers.

RENCI's computer server room
RENCI's computer server room

A decade-long RENCI collaboration with the UNC School of Medicine has moved scientists several steps closer to understanding how to diagnose and treat schizophrenia. In 2005, researchers proposed involvement of gene-regulating molecules occurring in all animals and plants called microRNAs, and that work culminated in 2016 with the first identification of a certain microRNA that occurs specifically in humans. A 2017 study determined that paranoia together with illogical thinking are clinical symptoms strongly predictive of schizophrenia risk. And in 2018, networks of correlated immunological proteins were identified that change with increasing risk. All studies required invention of new ways to find patterns in data by Ahalt and his team.

The organization also has set up a database from which scientists at the UNC School of Medicine can track, classify and analyze genetic information. This helps them identify patterns, predict which patients might get particular diseases, and even individualize treatments.

Elizabeth Davis was one of the early beneficiaries. She suffered from an undiagnosed condition for 30 years that limited her ability to walk. Then Davis had her genome sequenced at the medical school.

From her genetic data, UNC School of Medicine research physicians Jim Evans, Jonathan Berg, Karen Weck and Kirk Wilhelmsen determined she suffered from dopa responsive dystonia. This condition stops the body from producing an important amino acid called dopa. Absence of dopa prevents the nervous system from functioning normally. However, Davis’ condition is easy to treat with medicine, and she was soon able to abandon her wheelchair and crutches and walk on her own.


NCBiotech values RENCI's precision health contribution


“I can’t overstate the importance of RENCI’s work to advance precision medicine,” said Sara Imhof, Ph.D., senior director of precision health at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “The organization is among the best anywhere at collecting and analyzing data that support our collaborative efforts to provide better, more-personalized healthcare to all North Carolinians.” 

Located in an unassuming office building near UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, of which it is a part, RENCI is indistinguishable from dozens of other businesses in the area -- except for the 2,000-square-foot data center that houses its supercomputer. And then there are the 88 employees who range in experience from molecular informatics to oceanography. A quick walk down the hall and you might run into a software development engineer, a data science specialist, an electrical engineer or a storm surge expert.

RENCI’s reputation is a byproduct of that diversity and the way the organization operates, Ahalt said. “What makes us unique is that we have talented people with a wide range of skills and knowledge you don’t find in many academic settings like ours,” he pointed out. “And we have a high degree of flexibility to follow what we believe are early scientific trends.”

Flexibility and the freedom to call upon resources outside the walls of the university are key to RENCI’s success. “We can quickly pivot to look for answers to our questions and collaborate with other experts across the country as we need to,” Ahalt explained. “We’re not paralyzed by what we don’t know.”


Supercomputer also used for weather data


The list of projects in which RENCI is engaged is impressive. At least one helps save lives.

Its supercomputer -- aptly named Hatteras for the home of North Carolina’s most famous Outer Banks lighthouse -- worked overtime in September to predict storm surge and wind-generated waves from Hurricane Florence, just as it had for hurricanes Irene, Irma, and Matthew in the past few years.

Storm surge hazard predictions are based on an ADCIRC model developed at UNC and the University of Notre Dame. Information from RENCI is incorporated into real-time guidance from the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center, FEMA and local and state emergency management organizations, including the NC Department of Transportation. The data play an important role in determining which areas to evacuate and where to position supplies and response personnel.


One of four NSF-funded regional big data centers


RENCI also hosts -- with the Georgia Institute of Technology -- the South Big Data Hub, one of four regional centers in the United States funded by the National Science Foundation. They are helping develop an Open Storage Network that allows academic researchers across the United States to work with and share data more efficiently.

The organization founded and directs the iRODS Consortium, a diverse group that collaborates to keep the integrated Rule-Oriented Data System (iRODS) viable. iRODS is open-source data management software used by businesses, universities, research organizations and government agencies worldwide. It provides a common namespace, along with metadata support and a policy engine that lets users gain access to information regardless of where, or on what device, it is stored. The consortium is focused on expanding the communities that deploy the system, developing new software and providing support.

RENCI’s current emphasis is on what it calls the D5 Group: Data Translator, Data Reasoner, Data Commons, Data Stage and the Data Stage Coordinating Center. These five projects, funded primarily through federal grants, will establish a virtual space where scientists can store, share and query a wide range of biomedical information. Some of the data will support the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders.

Grants like those that support D5 are an important source of capital for RENCI, along with university and state allocations. And the organization is good at attracting grant monies. Over the past three years, it has directly received almost $23 million in government and private funding and has collaborated on another $78 million in grants to partner institutions.

The biggest challenge ahead is what Ahalt calls a scaling issue. RENCI doesn’t have the resources to handle all the requests for assistance that come its way. “We can execute,” he said. “But we can no longer respond in the blink of an eye to every new opportunity.”

That may not be the worst problem to have. It could open doors to future partnerships and even commercial opportunities that increase RENCI’s reach -- along with its name recognition.

Bryant Haskins, NCBiotech writer
Tue, 10/23/2018 - 12:16