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Big Picture, Big Data, Big Impact

Big Picture, Big Data, Big Impact

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

You don’t need to be a scientist or researcher to know that the digital age has accelerated the pace of discovery and change in everything we do – not least medical research.

In the late 80s when the personal computer was starting to be the next big thing and the Woolcock hired its first “computer expert”, a young Brett Toelle also joined its Epidemiology research group. Thirty-five years later, Associate Professor Toelle is one of its research leaders.

For a big picture researcher like him, working at a population level to identify risk factors and healthcare responses, the digital age has been particularly transformative. And, he believes we’ve only just begun.

At Your Fingertips

Associate Professor Toelle marvels at the information that’s readily available today compared to his early days at the Woolcock.

“We’ve always read journal articles but the exchange of research information was tortuously slow compared to today. In the old days, the librarian used to photocopy the front page of the journal. When there were enough of them they would be clipped together, they would then circulate around the Department. You’d put your initials next to the ones you wanted then, finally, if you were the last person, you’d give it back to the librarian, the librarian would photocopy them all and send them around in the same distribution list. So you’d be three or four months behind unless you really, really, really wanted an article.”

The button-click availability of that same information today, in pdf format on researchers’ PCs, has facilitated an easy exchange of information between researchers internationally which means research dollars are more targeted and effective. 

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Working Together, Apart

COVID shifted our world even more into the digital domain with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella observing in April 2020 that the world had seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months” and more than 200 million people joining a Teams meeting in a single day. Which means collaboration between researchers in the same team or at different institutes around the world are even easier.

“COVID taught us that you don’t have to be physically together to work together. You just have to have a computer screen in front of you. Guy [Marks, the Woolcock’s other Respiratory and Environmental Epidemiology research leader] runs a lot of his life online. Getting him to come to the office is difficult but that’s because he says ‘I can be in Paris one minute, I can be in here with you guys the next minute, I can be in New York the next.”

A World of Opportunity

The speed of computing and that ability to process, compare and synthesise large amounts of data quickly has meant big changes for epidemiologists and Associate Professor Toelle believes the next big thing when it comes to epidemiological research is big data.

“We’ve started to see that, but there’s so much more that can be achieved,” he says.

He believes working together with the Australian Institute for Health Innovation at Macquarie University will present a whole host of research opportunities.

“The question is how can we come together to look at the sorts of de-identified data that exists in MyHealthRecord and what can be done with that to improve Australia’s healthcare system? We’re providing that sort of big data advice to the government already through the Australian Centre for Airways disease Monitoring (ACAM) at the Woolcock.”

Being able to achieve big things, to make a difference to the lives of so many, is what has kept Associate Professor Toelle at the Woolcock for 35 years.

“I’m a registered nurse and a psychologist. I could work as a nurse or psychologist providing the important and impactful one-on-one level health care, but I feel that I can multiply my impact with research which has a much broader application and can have an impact on people not only in Australia but in far-flung countries who I’ll never even meet. And being digitally connected means that research happens more quickly and the impact is felt even more broadly.”

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