Seeing patterns, saving lives
Each year around 15 million babies are born prematurely, and over one million of these lose their fight for life*. Now there’s a real prospect of reducing that number, thanks to the research of Australian innovator and computer scientist, Professor Carolyn McGregor AM.
As Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Professor McGregor is at the forefront of today’s neonatal research.
But that’s just one area benefitting from her gift for uncovering critical patterns in unfathomable amounts of data. She is also working with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to monitor the health of astronauts and cosmonauts on the space program to Mars — as well as helping police and front line response teams take control of their mental health.
Growing up in Sydney in the 1970s and 80s, Professor McGregor had a love of maths and logic puzzles from early childhood.
“Maths is just something I really enjoyed. I could read a scenario, see just what kind of a maths puzzle it was and then solve the puzzle,” she says.
By 1987, she was enrolling in computer science at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). One of only a few female students enrolled in computer science that year. “As the fi rst one in my family to go to university, that felt pretty trailblazing at the time,” she says.
At the point of joining UTS, Professor McGregor was taking part in a cadetship program with St George Bank, developing information systems to analyse customer behaviour. This was at a time when
businesses were only beginning to understand the commercial value of customer data. “I was helping the bank to better understand people’s savings and spending behaviour, by analysing patterns
in the data,” she explains.
While completing her PhD in 1999, Professor McGregor was approached by Dr Mark Tracy, a neonatologist keen to discover how to use data from bedside monitors for better healthcare.
“It was much more complex data than what I had worked with before”, she explains, “but ultimately it was still trying to identify patterns in people.”
In the same year, Professor McGregor suffered her own tragedy — her first child was born prematurely with a rare chromosomal disorder and passed away.
Her loss, she says, serves as a constant reminder as to how real the problem is.
By 2005, Professor McGregor had established the health informatics research program at the University of Western Sydney, and built the precursor of her health analytics platform, Artemis. Named after the Greek goddess of childbearing, Artemis enables real-time analysis of multiple data streams.
Because a newborn’s life can change in a single heartbeat, the key was to develop a tool to continuously monitor every breath and every heartbeat in real-time.
In 2007, Professor McGregor took up her appointment at UOIT. It was here, through a multi-million dollar strategic partnership with IBM, where she created — and has since enhanced — the Artemis platform.
Now cloud-based, it analyses over 1,200 points of data per second, per patient — generating critical insights into patient care and off ering accessibility to hospitals in rural and remote regions.
A chance encounter in 2010 then uncovered an opportunity to use the technology in a new and unexpected way.
While at an innovation conference, she met former astronaut Dave Williams, now president and CEO of Southlake Regional Health Centre, Toronto. Williams was speaking about the need for real-time
monitoring environments on earth and in space. “We need to talk,” she told him.
Their collaboration introduced Professor McGregor to the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and scientists working on the Russian Space Program at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems.
Artemis is now being used in the planning for the 2030 mission to Mars. The technology is monitoring astronauts’ body reactions while they are in simulated isolation chambers, and providing data to help develop counter measures to conditions such as bone density loss and fluctuations in body fluid.
“We’re working in partnership with Russia, and NASA and Japan are now involved because they believe it will be a multi-cultural team going to Mars. When you consider the scenario of a multicultural
team on a 500-day mission, it’s really interesting from a psychological perspective as well as a health point of view,” says Professor McGregor.
Psychology and mental health are also the focus of her team’s latest project, Athena, which has been designed to help police and SWAT teams combat depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It does this by monitoring and regulating emotive triggers to events in training environments.
“If we can look at a structured approach to training that can help them build resilience we believe we have the potential to prevent the onset of PTSD, she says.”
In 2015, Professor McGregor was recognised with the Advance Global Australian Award for Technology Innovation, which reconnected her with UTS almost 30 years after she started her studies. She is now collaborating with the university to help build its excellence in data analytics. This reunion is important to her, she says, because it’s giving her a chance to give something back.
“My primary focus is to improve healthcare in Australia and Canada. I always hoped that what I started in Australia and took to Canada, I could bring back.”
“Maybe because I’m a woman, a mother, someone who has lost a child, whatever it is, that’s me. I have to make sure that what I do benefits the countries who have helped me to do what I’ve done.”