Houston voices

Tips for optimizing data management in research, from a UH expert

Here's your university research data management checklist. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

A data management plan is invaluable to researchers and to their universities. "You should plan at the outset for managing output long-term," said Reid Boehm, research data management librarian at University of Houston Libraries.

At the University of Houston, research data generated while individuals are pursuing research studies as faculty, staff or students of the University of Houston are to be retained by the institution for a period of three years after submission of the final report. That means there is a lot of data to be managed. But researchers are in luck – there are many resources to help navigate these issues.

Take inventory

Is your data

  • Active (constantly changing) or Inactive (static)
  • Open (public) or Proprietary (for monetary gain)
  • Non-identifiable (no human subjects) or Sensitive (containing personal information)
  • Preservable (to save long term) or To discard in 3 years (not for keeping)
  • Shareable (ready for reuse) or Private (not able to be shared)

The more you understand the kind of data you are generating the easier this step, and the next steps, will be.

Check first

When you are ready to write your plan, the first thing to determine is if your funders or the university have data management plan policy and guidelines. For instance, University of Houston does.

It is also important to distinguish between types of planning documents. For example:

A Data Management Plan (DMP) is a comprehensive, formal document that describes how you will handle your data during the course of your research and at the conclusion of your study or project.

While in some instances, funders or institutions may require a more targeted plan such as a Data Sharing Plan (DSP) that describes how you plan to disseminate your data at the conclusion of a research project.

Consistent questions that DMPs ask include:

  • What is generated?
  • How is it securely handled? and
  • How is it maintained and accessed long-term?

However it's worded, data is critical to every scientific study.

Pre-proposal

Pre-proposal planning resources and support at UH Libraries include a consultation with Boehm. "Each situation is unique and in my role I function as an advocate for researchers to talk through the contextual details, in connection with funder and institutional requirements," stated Boehm. "There are a lot of aspects of data management and dissemination that can be made less complex and more functional long term with a bit of focused planning at the beginning."

When you get started writing, visit the Data Management Plan Tool. This platform helps by providing agency-specific templates and guidance, working with your institutional login and allowing you to submit plans for feedback.

Post-project

Post-project resources and support involve the archiving, curation and the sharing of information. The UH Data Repository archives, preserves and helps to disseminate your data. The repository, the data portion of the institutional repository Cougar ROAR, is open access, free to all UH researchers, provides data sets with a digital object identifier and allows up to 10 GB per project. Most most Federal funding agencies already require this type of documentation (NSF, NASA, USGS and EPA. The NIH will require DMPs by 2023.

Start out strong

Remember, although documentation is due at the beginning of a project/grant proposal, sustained adherence to the plan and related policies is a necessity. We may be distanced socially, but our need to come together around research integrity remains constant. Starting early, getting connected to resources, and sharing as you can through avenues like the data repository are ways to strengthen ourselves and our work.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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