Penn Medicine News Blog

September 28, 2016 // By Karen Kreeger // Comments

On the Road with Data Science

Basic Science // Cancer // Research // Translational Research

Olson NPS Road trip mapRandy Olson, PhD, a senior data scientist with Penn’s Institute for Biomedical Informatics (IBI), started publishing optimized road trip maps  -- a modern Trip Tik of sorts -- while still a graduate student at Michigan State University in 2014.  They’ve remain a big hit on social media and in the popular press.

Before Olson was recruited by Jason Moore, PhD, IBI’s director, he spent one snowed-in Michigan weekend developing his first optimized road trip around the United States to procrastinate while writing his dissertation. He was inspired to pursue this hobby after reading an article in Slate magazine describing an algorithm to predict where Waldo might be on the next page in the popular kids’ book Where’s Waldo.

Making the not-so-frivolous leap from road trips to medical research, Olson, Moore, and others at IBI use a broad range of approaches to solve data analysis problems facing biomedicine. “If we’re willing to accept that we don’t need the absolute best route between all of the landmarks, then we can turn to smarter techniques such as genetic algorithms [an optimization algorithm inspired by Darwinian evolution] to find a solution that’s good enough for our purposes,” Olson writes in his personal blog about his mapping methods. “Instead of exhaustively looking at every possible solution, genetic algorithms start with a handful of random solutions and continually tinker with these solutions — always trying something slightly different from the current solutions and keeping the best ones — until they can’t find a better solution anymore.”

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