As a computational neuroscientist advancing the scientific uses of web technology, Pestilli is helping to transform how neuroscience is done by breaking down barriers to online, collaborative research.
“Franco is the rare scholar who has been at the innovative edge of his fundamental scientific research and use of new and advanced computing tools,” said Craig Stewart, executive director of the IU Pervasive Technology Institute. “Because of this he has simultaneously advanced the state of knowledge in brain sciences and the state of practice in cloud computing to the benefit of both fields.”
Pestilli’s research has been instrumental in advancing a major cultural change in scientific research. Through his innovative use of cloud-computing tools, he has helped foster a shift from individuals working independently in labs to larger, collaborative, open-sourced environments of “web labs,” which increase the opportunities for communication and data-sharing among scientists and members of the public alike.
The shift not only creates expanded capacity to collect and analyze increasingly large sets of data with collaborators from different disciplines, it also helps scientists address the question of reproducibility. It does this by creating new methods for sharing information and common web-based platforms on which to examine it.
The new open collaborative model also “accelerates discovery,” Pestilli said. In his work as a computational neuroscientist, this means bringing together large volumes of genetic, brain-imaging and behavioral data to better understand such topics as human aging, the origins of Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, and adolescent brain and cognitive development, among other areas. It also means applying the tools of artificial intelligence to connect researchers to all the appropriate data and studies on these topics, thereby “facilitating scientific work with ‘smart’ suggestions that the researcher might not think of on their own,” he said.
Pestilli will use the Azure cloud-computing platform in conjunction with his own existing platform, brainlife.io, which allows data scientists, neuroscientists and clinicians to upload their data and computer code onto a common ecosystem. Combining these capabilities with Microsoft’s Azure promises to expand the level of collaboration and communication exponentially.
“Data is the new oil,” Pestilli said. “Yet, while we think of most data-sharing mechanisms as an asset only to corporations and commerce, this one benefits science, scientists and the communities they aim to serve.”