At a pivotal point in their nascent research careers, students need resources that are accessible, comprehensible, and detailed. This is especially true during the present era – a time coined the “Infodemic” for being flooded with biomedical research and data. Stony Brook University student Irene Abraham explains how tools like Outbreak.info can help students better understand COVID-19 and dig deeper into this present moment in biomedical research.
Growing up, Irene Abraham was always interested in science. She loved its intricacy, fascinated by the complicated interactions between living things and the laws that govern the universe. Burdened by limitless curiosity, she struggled to narrow down the scope of her interest to one field. Would it be more fascinating to gaze up at the stars and explore astrophysics? Or would her work be more impactful if she delved into the sea and studied marine biology?
From the first day her high school class began learning about viruses, she was instantly captivated. “Something smaller than bacteria and very complex, yet it is not even considered living. How could one not feel compelled to learn more about this? To me, it was like studying an alien species,” she said. Since then, her fascination with viruses has only grown. Now an undergraduate Biology student and aspiring virologist at Stony Brook University, she equates the pursuit of knowledge in virology with life purpose.
From the early days of the pandemic, Irene has viewed the challenges faced by the world as a learning opportunity and a chance to investigate a subject that has public good:
It was a very grim reality but at the same time it fascinated me….it was something very chilling but I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what surface receptor or receptors it binds to, what type of surface protein it had, if it was positive sense or negative sense RNA/DNA and much more. There was so much to discover with this virus and it opened a new door for me.
Irene uses Outbreak.info as a learning tool for improving her grasp on the pandemic. She finds value in being able to look up specific variants and get extensive information about each one. She explained that when she hears news about a variant, she appreciates being able to use the Lineage/Mutation Tracker to learn more about it.
“Seeing each variant and its genetic makeup outlined very nicely has helped me gain quite a lot of knowledge,” she said, further explaining that it is helpful for recognizing patterns around the world – on multiple levels. Outbreak.info’s Location Tracker helps her explore variants by location. Moreover, Cases & Deaths help her understand COVID-19 infection trends in the country and how they compare to other countries.
|Tracking COVID-19 cases from outbreak.info
|Tracking lineages from outbreak.info
Not only is the site useful for staying up-to-date on the latest information about specific lineages, the undergrad found that it can be used to explore more high-level questions about the virus. For example, what are the variants? And what does it mean to be a Variant of Concern? Using the site’s glossary, tooltips, filters, and blog, she has been able to dig into these questions.
She praised the readability of the site and level of detail of all information presented. She stated that without a tool that aggregates data sources, accessing genomic data and then knowing what to do with it would be overwhelming. “It is incredibly helpful to be able to hover over a certain area I'm not sure about and have what it is outlined and explained for me,” she said. It has also been important to her to be able to follow links to the sources. “With everything cross-linked, I can see where the information comes from - whether it’s the CDC or the WHO, or even to learn definitions like PANGO.” Furthermore, the thorough explanations of caveats on all of the plots has made it easier for her to understand SARS-CoV-2 data. She elaborated, “The data can be tricky to interpret, so it is helpful to be able to see where the biases and data limitations fall. That itself has taught me a little about how sampling is being done across the world, and how to critically approach information about COVID-19 and the variants.”
Irene believes the most important SARS-CoV-2 research centers on stopping the spread of the virus, research focused on understanding every detail of its replication cycle. This is what interests her the most - impairing viral replication. Currently, she would like to learn more about the structure of the essential replicative enzymes used during the virus’s replication cycle. She sees this as the key to an antiviral drug that could save millions of lives and improve worldwide immunity. Irene utilizes the Research Library to follow new research. “From the variants page, you can scroll down to see the latest research that’s been done. It can save me a lot of work looking it up on other sites. I don’t even have to stop and think about the search terms to use because it’s already there.” She described the simplicity of using the filters in the Research Library page to narrow down the thousands of publications to a short list of relevant results. This can help students who are taking advantage of research opportunities – from identifying research gaps to writing a Literature Review.
Lastly, she emphasized the significance of the tool being publicly available by saying, “The fact that this tool is free makes it essential. I don’t know of another site where anyone can access this kind of data. As a student, that’s valuable to me.”
For students, Outbreak.info provides a free resource for better understanding coronavirus, as well as examining this current moment in biomedical research. It is a useful tool to start analyzing epidemiology and/or genomic data. It is easy to read and use, organized to be intuitive for individuals with a wide range of subject knowledge. Whether conducting personal or academic research, expanding knowledge, or pursing scholastic goals, Outbreak.info has shown to be an efficacious tool for studying SARS-CoV-2.
Irene is unsure which area of virology she will ultimately pursue, as she sees tremendous virtue in many specialties. She has been inspired by the dedication of researchers who have united on a global front to create vaccines, model replication, and track variants, and she cannot wait to be a part of it. Whether she goes into immunology, epidemiology, or another field, she says, “All I know is that I want to help people.”