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BU’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains For nearly five decades, BU biologist James Traniello has worked with ants to untangle some of biology’s biggest questions about brain evolution

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BU’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains


BU’s “Ant Man” Studies Ant Brains

Devin Hahn

Jessica Colarossi

Chris McIntosh

Ants are capable of extraordinary feats. Their individual and collective intelligence—coupled with their physical abilities—allow them to carry out complex tasks, communicate, and work efficiently as a colony. From leafcutter ants meticulously snipping and carrying pieces of foliage three times their size to bullet ants using their ferocious stings to ward off threats, these insects have fascinated scientists for centuries.

Among those studying their complex behavior is James Traniello, Boston University’s very own “ant man” and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology who has studied ants for nearly five decades. 

“It’s very hard to stop asking questions,” Traniello says. Over the years, he has looked at brain size and social complexity in ants, probing topics like how does collective intelligence impact the evolution of the brain and its structure? Are brain size and metabolism related? Compared to ants, we humans have brains that are unusually large for our body size, says Traniello, and they take up a large proportion of our total metabolism. This raises questions about how both insect and mammalian brain sizes evolved and about the relationship between the size of the brain and how much energy it requires. 

To study a range of species (and brain sizes), Traniello’s lab has assembled an impressive collection of ants. His lab currently has over 30 different types, including local carpenter ants and others native to the tropics, like leafcutter ants and bullet ants. The goal is to have the best representation of sizes possible, from some of the smallest—like the little black ant, Monomorium, at only a few millimeters—to the largest known ant, Dinoponera, which can get up to 2.5 centimeters long. Sometimes, across just one species, there are huge differences in body size, relative brain size, and brain region sizes—such as leafcutter ants, which can vary in head width from less than a millimeter to around 7 millimeters. 

Traniello’s lab studies a part of the insect brain called the mushroom body, which is equivalent in function to the cortex in mammals and is responsible for learning, memory, and more. He is figuring out how these regions differ based on the cognitive demands on the ants, some of whom, like the workers, have very specialized roles to play in the colony.

“There’s no such thing as a solitary ant,” Traniello says. “Just like there’s really no such thing as a solitary human. You can find people that are reclusive or loners, but that’s not really how we live.”  

One key part of his team’s work is making sure colonies thrive in a lab setting. Most of the local ants—which have adapted to the New England climate—aren’t fussy. But those that have traveled from Peru, Panama, or Florida, for example, need environmental chambers that simulate the humidity and temperature of the tropics. Leafcutter ants have particular needs in the lab, Traniello says, because they cultivate a special type of fungus. “The leafcutter ants have this amazing mutualistic relationship with a specific fungus: they cultivate it to feed off of it. They evolved agriculture long before humans did,” Traniello says. 

Even after all this time, Traniello remains fascinated by the world of ants and plans to continue asking questions about the evolution, ecology, and neurobiology of their social lives.

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Fake Seo Case Studies On Facebook

There is an increasing trend of publishing SEO case studies on Facebook to show how a tool or service can help increase search rankings and traffic.

At least one Facebook Group admin is taking action to challenge and remove them because they are designed with an agenda at best and are outright fakes at worst.

SEO Case Studies Tell Only One Story

A common problem with SEO case studies published on Facebook is that they are expressly designed to tell you a story of success in defeating Google’s algorithm.

If there is one constant in search marketing it may be the understanding that there is no sure thing or guarantees in SEO.

No SEO tool or person can guarantee specific results that are based on a third party.

Yet some SEO case studies published in Facebook groups are designed to create the impression that the tool can outwit Google.

Flaws in SEO Case Studies Published on Facebook

I don’t mean to say that all SEO case studies have issues.

One of the most consistent flaws I see in many case studies is that they are based on local geographic based keyword terms.

Except for highly competitive areas like injury attorneys, local search keyword phrases are relatively non-competitive, especially in small towns.

It’s easier to rank a page for the name of a small town and keywords than it is to rank for more competitive phrases in larger metro areas like Los Angeles or New York City.

One literally does not need a tool or that many backlinks to rank well for the name of a small town and local-search related keywords.

This lack of competition is why so many case studies are based on local geographic based keywords, particularly with city names that relate to smaller towns.

Rather than pick on an actual SEO case study (which I don’t want to do) I will use an SEO competition as an illustration of the ease of ranking local search keyword phrases.

The competition a while back was to see who could rank and hold on for the search phrase, Rhinoplasty Plano Texas.

The winner of that competition was a website constructed almost entirely of Lorem Ipsum Roman Latin words.

Only the heading tags were written in English.

The winners of that competition demonstrate a weakness in Google’s algorithm within low volume search queries that are tied to a low population geographic area.

That weakness tied to a local search queries in a low population area can be exploited to create an SEO case study that appears to show positive results in terms of how many search queries a site begins to rank for.

There are two kinds of successes that are variously claimed in SEO case studies published on Facebook:

Amount of keywords a site is ranking for

Increase in traffic

How Did a Latin Language Site Rank for English Keywords?

There were a lot of things going on to power that ranking.

But the chief reason is the low search volume for that search phrase.

Google is very much about showing users what they want to see.

But Google tends to do less well determining what users want when users are not searching with a particular set of keywords, like Rhinoplasty Plano Texas.

There was close to zero search query volume and trivial competition.

The fact that a webpage composed almost entirely of Latin could rank for the phrase Rhinoplasty Plano Texas is as much a reflection of the low competition for that phrase as it is an exposure of a weakness in Google’s algorithm that allows a non-English website to rank number one for a low competition keyword phrase.

Next time someone shoves a case study in your face, check to see if it’s based on local search keywords, most times it is.

Choosing a trivial search phrase is one way to help tilt an SEO case study so that it produces seemingly positive results.

100% Fake Case Studies

Another way hustlers generate business is by using fake case studies.

These unethical people don’t even bother to rank a site in an easy niche.

They just copy a Google Analytics graph from someone else’s case study and claim it as evidence that their link building service produces results.

They publish screenshots of web traffic analytics graphs with marks indicating the date links were added after which the analytics report shows the search traffic growing exponentially.

They usually don’t show you the keywords so you can check if the site is ranking, they rarely show the site or the actual amount of traffic.

There are a lot of specifics missing.

But more importantly, some of those web analytics screenshots are fake.

This is a big problem on Facebook Groups because the most unscrupulous and ambitious will show up to deceive people.

Fake SEO Case Studies on Facebook

I asked Steven Kang (@SEOSignalsLab), the administrator of the private SEO Signals Lab Facebook group about these fake case studies.

This is what the Steven Kang said:

Engaging screenshot posts in large SEO groups mean more people in their funnel for link building vendors and tool makers.

Translated, there is a huge commercial-driven motive standing behind each forgery. Some are calling this justifiable marketing and I completely disagree.

To discourage dishonest posts, I am requiring each poster to allow on-demand inspection and provide proof of the screenshot data to trusted moderators.”

There was a guy in that Facebook group earlier this year who was posting screenshots of his client work and Steven kicked him out of the group and deleted every post he had ever made in that group.”

Generating Traffic is Trivial

It’s easy to create a case study using a brand new domain to create the illusion that several hundred visitors per month are a direct result of their efforts.

Creating a website and taking it from zero to several hundred visitors per month is also relatively easy to do.

It’ll look great on an analytics graph yet it’s not always particularly meaningful.

Case Studies Disappear When Challenged

I don’t mean to say that all SEO case studies published on Facebook are fake.

But the problem of fake SEO case studies published on Facebook has become so problematic that Facebook Administrators like Kang require that anyone posting a case study allow inspection of things like Google Analytics data.

That requirement has dramatically cut down on the number of people sharing case studies in that Facebook Group.

When confronted with an SEO case study, be skeptical.

It’s OK to ask to demand to see specifics like keyword phrases and domain names in order to judge the truthfulness of their claims.

As Kang noted, SEO case studies are done for lead generation, these people want your money.

It’s not unreasonable to demand more information about the case study before handing over your money.

Two Nih Awards Push Bu’s Brain Research Forward

Two NIH Awards Push BU’s Brain Research Forward Jerry Chen wins $4.6 million from BRAIN Initiative

Jerry Chen, BU College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of biology. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Boston University’s brain science research is planted firmly on the fast track, thanks to two new grants totaling $4.6 million from the NIH BRAIN Initiative to Jerry Chen, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of biology. The grants, one for $1.9 million over five years to study how the brain assembles memory, and one for $2.7 million over three years to develop new microscopy technologies, were announced just three weeks after Chen won another major prize: the NIH 2023 New Innovator Award of $2.5 million over the next five years, money that will fund Chen’s effort to crack the brain’s neural code.

“This recognition of Jerry’s work is truly outstanding,” says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “He is clearly doing work that is at the cutting edge of neuroscience and which fits beautifully into the goals of the Center for Systems Neuroscience to develop and employ new technologies that will provide a window into better understanding the brain. His collaboration with Michelle Sander in engineering is also an example of the types of synergies we have been hoping to create between the life sciences and engineering through the creation of the Rajen Kilachand Center and Fund.”

Chen’s BRAIN Initiative Targeted Brain Circuits Projects grant of $1.9 million will fund his research into how the brain assembles sensory information into abstract representations.

“Let’s say you’re in a car driving towards a traffic light,” Chen said, in describing his research. “Somehow, your brain has figured out that the red light perceived by your eyes means that you should stop before the crosswalk. There must be a mental process by which the incoming information you are currently experiencing is being compared against your previous experiences in which you’ve learned that red means stop. The computations and circuits in the brain that give rise to this are very much a mystery.”

Chen hopes to record activity from different parts of the brain simultaneously to learn how the whole brain works to carry out these computations. “Our goal is a circuit-level understanding of how all of these stimuli generate higher-level representations, how those representations are associated with action, and how they are learned and recalled as needed.”

Chen’s second BRAIN Initiative award of $2.7 million for New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System will be divided among three laboratories working together to devise a new kind of microscope that will allow researchers to observe the firing of thousands of neurons in the brain in greater detail.

Currently available microscopic technology generates from 30 to 40 images a second. “That’s about the same speed as a video camera, but we need to capture more than 1,000 frames per second to see when a neuron fires,” says Chen, who is collaborating on the project with two other researchers. One is Michelle Sander, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at BU, who will design a novel and compact fiber laser system that will offer ultrafast pulses specifically customized for the microscope. That system will use techniques similar to chirped pulse amplification, for which one half of the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this year, and will enable high-speed imaging with fast readouts and sensitive detection that far exceeds what is currently available from commercial lasers and microscopes. Sander was awarded a prestigious Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Award in 2024.

Chen’s other collaborator is Vincent Pieribone, a protein chemist and director of the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University, who will devise powerful new molecular sensors that can directly read out the fast electrical activity underlying neuron communication. The result—two-photon microscopy and genetically encoded voltage-sensitive indicators—will give Chen’s researchers the information they need without doing postmortem neuron identification.

Chen, who came to BU from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, three years ago, also won the 2024 Stuart and Elizabeth Pratt Career Development Professorship, which highlights excellence within CAS. As a faculty member of the Center for Systems Neuroscience and the Neurophotonics Center, Chen’s awards are part of larger efforts at BU to examine how systems of interacting neurons mediate behavioral function through interdisciplinary approaches to develop and deploy impactful photonics technologies in the neurosciences.

“To get all these grants at once, it feels a little like winning the lottery,” says Chen. “We’re really excited to be given the chance to deliver on what we proposed and move the field forward.”

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Bu’s Global Days Of Service Goes On, Virtually

BU’s Global Days of Service Goes On, Virtually

Helping out at the Greater Boston Food Bank during last year’s BU Global Days of Service. This year’s event will be a little different. Photo by Dana J. Quigley, courtesy BU Alumni Association

Public Health

BU’s Global Days of Service Goes On, Virtually Also in our Coronavirus Wednesday Roundup: no Boston Pride, SPH’s Sandro Galea gets props, and goodbye, Hotel Buckminster

Quote of the day: Stat of the day: BU News Join Global Days of Service at home or online SPH Dean Galea highlighted by LinkedIn

Sandro Galea, dean of BU School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor. Photo by Kelly Davidson

No surprise that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, LinkedIn has put out a list naming a dozen “Top Voices in health care that you should be following now.” No surprise either that number 11 on the list was Sandro Galea, dean of the BU School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor, named for what he shares on the platform about the pandemic’s impact on society and the health gaps it intensifies.

Boston and Beyond News Boston Pride 2023 is canceled

Latest casualties of the coronavirus epidemic are Boston Pride events scheduled for June, which have been pushed to June 2023, the city and organizers said Tuesday. This year is the 50th anniversary of the event. “I know this was a very hard decision to make, and I know it’s very hard news to hear, but it’s the right decision,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “As we fight the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s safety and health is our top priority.”

Parking help for frontline healthcare workers

Walsh also announced new parking relief measures for healthcare workers. If a healthcare worker gets a parking ticket, the city will waive all fees if the worker appeals the ticket by emailing [email protected] and includes both the ticket and a photo of their medical identification. This new policy also applies retroactively for tickets issued over the past month. It applies to violations like an expired meter, but not to public safety violations, such as blocking a hydrant, sidewalk, or handicap ramp. The city is also working on securing parking garages and lots across the city to offer free parking for healthcare workers. Find maps of these and other parking areas here.

Governor Charlie Baker promises major financial relief for hospitals

Baker said Tuesday that the state will infuse $800 million into the state’s healthcare system from April through July to provide health providers relief for lost revenues from missed visits and procedures canceled due to the coronavirus. Funding for this package is coming from reductions in MassHealth and from federal revenues. Half the amount, $400 million, will support 28 safety-net and high-Medicaid hospitals. This funding will address lost revenue, stabilization, and increased costs for treating COVID-19. Some $80 million will go to nursing facilities, and $300 million to other providers, including community healthcare centers.

Hotel Buckminster won’t be coming back

The Universal Hub website recognized it before we did: Kenmore Square’s historic Hotel Buckminster is closed, and not just for the duration of the coronavirus quarantine. The hotel—where the 1919 Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal was hatched, and long a favorite of folks going to Fenway Park—closed March 20 with “no plans to reopen.” And in response to queries on its Facebook page, hotel staff confirm it’s not an open-ended response to COVID-19. Facebook visitors speculate that the hotel will be renovated and reopen as a more upscale establishment.

US & Global News Eyeing racial disparities among COVID-19 victims

In the coronavirus hotspot of Louisiana, about 70 percent of the people who have died are African American, although only a third of the state’s population is black, the New York Times reports. The data are limited, the Times says, but “the emerging statistics show black residents being infected at disturbing rates in some of the nation’s largest cities and states.” A variety of social and health disparities are being looked at as possible causes.

Latest count of coronavirus cases

United States, 383,256; Massachusetts, 15,202.

Distraction of the day: Music reccos

WGBH asked a bunch of Boston-area musicians what they’re listening to while holed up at home, away from the coronavirus. Answering were familiar names (Tanya Donelly, Kay Hanley, Bill Janovitz) and others not so much (Ballroom Thieves). The answers ranged from “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan to a Mahler symphony to “Ice Cream” by Cakeswagg.

Find BU Today’s latest coverage of the pandemic here. The University’s hotline for faculty, staff, students, and visiting scholars to call for referral of their virus-related medical concerns is 617-358-4990.

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Types Of Computer Network: What Is Lan, Man And Wan

What is a Computer Network?

A Computer Network is a group of two or more interconnected computer systems that use common connection protocols for sharing various resources and files. You can establish a computer network connection using either cable or wireless media. Every network involves hardware and software that connects computers and tools.

In this Computer networking tutorial, you will learn:

Different Types of Computer Networks

There are various types of Computer Networking options available. The classification of network in computers can be done according to their size as well as their purpose.

The size of a network should be expressed by the geographic area and number of computers, which are a part of their networks. It includes devices housed in a single room to millions of devices spread across the world. Following are the popular types of Computer Network:

Types of Computer Networks

PAN (Personal Area Network)

LAN (Local Area Network)

MAN (Metropolitan Area Network)

WAN (Wide Area Network)

Let’s study all of these types of networking in detail.

What is PAN (Personal Area Network)?

PAN (Personal Area Network) is a computer network formed around a person. It generally consists of a computer, mobile, or personal digital assistant. PAN can be used for establishing communication among these personal devices for connecting to a digital network and the internet.

Characteristics of PAN

Below are the main characteristics of PAN:

It is mostly personal devices network equipped within a limited area.

Allows you to handle the interconnection of IT devices at the surrounding of a single user.

PAN includes mobile devices, tablet, and laptop.

It can be wirelessly connected to the internet called WPAN.

Appliances use for PAN: cordless mice, keyboards, and Bluetooth systems.

Advantages of PAN

Here are the important pros/benefits of PAN network:

PAN networks are relatively secure and safe

It offers only short-range solution up to ten meters

Strictly restricted to a small area

Here are the cons/drawbacks of using PAN network:

It may establish a bad connection to other networks at the same radio bands.

Distance limits.

What is a LAN (Local Area Network)?

A Local Area Network (LAN) is a group of computer and peripheral devices which are connected in a limited area such as school, laboratory, home, and office building. It is a widely useful network for sharing resources like files, printers, games, and other application. The simplest type of LAN network is to connect computers and a printer in someone’s home or office. In general, LAN will be used as one type of transmission medium. It is a network which consists of less than 5000 interconnected devices across several buildings.

Local Area Network (LAN)

Characteristics of LAN

Here are the important characteristics of a LAN network:

It is a private network, so an outside regulatory body never controls it.

LAN operates at a relatively higher speed compared to other WAN systems.

There are various kinds of media access control methods like token ring and ethernet.

Advantages of LAN

Here are the pros/benefits of LAN:

Computer resources like hard-disks, DVD-ROM, and printers can share local area networks. This significantly reduces the cost of hardware purchases.

You can use the same software over the network instead of purchasing the licensed software for each client in the network.

Data of all network users can be stored on a single hard disk of the server computer.

You can easily transfer data and messages over networked computers.

It will be easy to manage data at only one place, which makes data more secure.

Local Area Network offers the facility to share a single internet connection among all the LAN users.

Here are the cons/drawbacks of LAN:

LAN will indeed save cost because of shared computer resources, but the initial cost of installing Local Area Networks is quite high.

The LAN admin can check personal data files of every LAN user, so it does not offer good privacy.

Unauthorized users can access critical data of an organization in case LAN admin is not able to secure centralized data repository.

Local Area Network requires a constant LAN administration as there are issues related to software setup and hardware failures

What is WAN (Wide Area Network)?

WAN (Wide Area Network) is another important computer network that which is spread across a large geographical area. WAN network system could be a connection of a LAN which connects with other LAN’s using telephone lines and radio waves. It is mostly limited to an enterprise or an organization.

Wide Area Network (WAN)

Characteristics of WAN

Below are the characteristics of WAN:

The software files will be shared among all the users; therefore, all can access to the latest files.

Any organization can form its global integrated network using WAN.

Advantages of WAN

Here are the benefits/pros of WAN:

WAN helps you to cover a larger geographical area. Therefore business offices situated at longer distances can easily communicate.

Contains devices like mobile phones, laptop, tablet, computers, gaming consoles, etc.

WLAN connections work using radio transmitters and receivers built into client devices.

Here are the drawbacks/cons of WAN network:

The initial setup cost of investment is very high.

It is difficult to maintain the WAN network. You need skilled technicians and network administrators.

There are more errors and issues because of the wide coverage and the use of different technologies.

It requires more time to resolve issues because of the involvement of multiple wired and wireless technologies.

Offers lower security compared to other types of network in computer.

What is MAN (Metropolitan Area Network)?

A Metropolitan Area Network or MAN is consisting of a computer network across an entire city, college campus, or a small region. This type of network is large than a LAN, which is mostly limited to a single building or site. Depending upon the type of configuration, this type of network allows you to cover an area from several miles to tens of miles.

Metropolitan Area Network (MAN)

Characteristics of MAN

Here are important characteristics of the MAN network:

It mostly covers towns and cities in a maximum 50 km range

Mostly used medium is optical fibers, cables

Data rates adequate for distributed computing applications.

Advantages of MAN

Here are the pros/benefits of MAN network:

It offers fast communication using high-speed carriers, like fiber optic cables.

It provides excellent support for an extensive size network and greater access to WANs.

The dual bus in MAN network provides support to transmit data in both directions concurrently.

A MAN network mostly includes some areas of a city or an entire city.

Here are drawbacks/cons of using the MAN network:

You need more cable to establish MAN connection from one place to another.

In MAN network it is tough to make the system secure from hackers

Other Types of Computer Networks

Apart from above mentioned computer networks, here are some other important types of networks:

WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network)

Storage Area Network

System Area Network

Home Area Network

POLAN- Passive Optical LAN

Enterprise private network

Campus Area Network

Virtual Area Network

Let’s see all these different types of networks in detail:


WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) helps you to link single or multiple devices using wireless communication within a limited area like home, school, or office building. It gives users an ability to move around within a local coverage area which may be connected to the network. Today most modern day’s WLAN systems are based on IEEE 802.11 standards.

2) Storage-Area Network (SAN)

A Storage Area Network is a type of network which allows consolidated, block-level data storage. It is mainly used to make storage devices, like disk arrays, optical jukeboxes, and tape libraries.

3) System-Area Network

System Area Network is used for a local network. It offers high-speed connection in server-to-server and processor-to-processor applications. The computers connected on a SAN network operate as a single system at quite high speed.

4) Passive Optical Local Area Network

POLAN is a networking technology which helps you to integrate into structured cabling. It allows you to resolve the issues of supporting Ethernet protocols and network apps.

POLAN allows you to use optical splitter which helps you to separate an optical signal from a single-mode optical fiber. It converts this single signal into multiple signals.

5) Home Area Network (HAN):

A Home Area Network is always built using two or more interconnected computers to form a local area network (LAN) within the home. For example, in the United States, about 15 million homes have more than one computer.

These types of network connections help computer owners to interconnect with multiple computers. This network allows sharing files, programs, printers, and other peripherals.

6) Enterprise Private Network :

Enterprise private network (EPN) networks are build and owned by businesses that want to securely connect numerous locations in order to share various computer resources.

7) Campus Area Network (CAN):

A Campus Area Network is made up of an interconnection of LANs within a specific geographical area. For example, a university campus can be linked with a variety of campus buildings to connect all the academic departments.

8) Virtual Private Network:

A VPN is a private network which uses a public network to connect remote sites or users together. The VPN network uses “virtual” connections routed through the internet from the enterprise’s private network or a third-party VPN service to the remote site.

It is a free or paid service that keeps your web browsing secure and private over public WiFi hotspots.


Types of connections in computer networks can be categorized according to their size as well as their purpose

PAN is a computer network which generally consists of a computer, mobile, or personal digital assistant

LAN (Local Area Network) is a group of computer and peripheral devices which are connected in a limited area

WAN (Wide Area Network) is another important computer network that which is spread across a large geographical area

A metropolitan area network or MAN is consisting of a computer network across an entire city, college campus, or a small region

WLAN is a wireless local area network that helps you to link single or multiple devices using. It uses wireless communication within a limited area like home, school, or office building.

SAN is a storage area network is a type of network which allows consolidated, block-level data storage

System area network offers high-speed connection in server-to-server applications, storage area networks, and processor-to-processor applications

POLAN is a networking technology which helps you to integrate into structured cabling

Home network (HAN) is a always built using two or more interconnected computers to form a local area network (LAN) within the home

Enterprise private network (EPN) networks are build and owned by businesses that want to securely connect various locations

Campus area network (CAN) is made up of an interconnection of LANs in a specific geographical area

A VPN is a private network which uses a public network to connect remote sites or users together

What does LAN stand for? – LAN stands for Local Area Network.

What is the difference between LAN and WAN? – LAN is a computer network that covers a small geographic area, like a home, office, or group of buildings, while WAN is a computer network that covers a broader area.

A Door Opens For Public Health Studies

A Door Opens for Public Health Studies SPH partnership gives researchers unprecedented data access

Dan Berlowitz

Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health (SPH) have unprecedented access to medical claims and clinical data, under a partnership forged with Optum Labs, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based research center.

Optum Labs reached agreements to collaborate with seven health care organizations including SPH—the only school of public health on a list that includes Pfizer, Tufts Medical Center, and the American Medical Group Association.

Partners have access to millions of medical claims and clinical records of insured patients, for research that could range from medication studies to health policy and outcomes analyses.

The de-identified records include information about tests, treatments and costs of care, as well as patients’ race, income level and geographical location.

“As a school of public health, we hope to bring to this partnership a whole new set of questions that large data sets are able to address—not just about the effectiveness of medication, as many studies may look at, but everything from understanding environmental health exposures, to basic epidemiology, to health policy questions,” says Dr. Dan Berlowitz, a professor of health policy and management at SPH who is leading the collaboration.

“These data represent a broad swath of the population—not just the elderly, as Medicare does, or veterans who are seen in the VA, but children and people of diverse ages and backgrounds,” he says. “This broadens the opportunities for our faculty and students throughout the institution to explore issues using detailed data representing millions of people.”

Traditionally, access to claims data has been relatively limited, with many studies relying on smaller databases, or on records of patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid, federally funded insurance programs. The partnership with Optum Labs will allow researchers to access a much larger pool of de-identified clinical and claims data, in collaboration with researchers and experts from other health care institutions.

“Data is sort of the life blood of what we do in research,” says Dr. Mark Prashker, SPH associate dean of institutional development and strategic planning and an associate professor of health policy and management. “This gives us big data in health care—it allows us to ask questions we couldn’t ordinarily ask…I think it has the potential to revolutionize how we think about solving health care–delivery questions.”

Researchers who want access to the data are asked to submit proposals to a SPH review committee, which will work with Optum Labs and other research partners to ensure collaboration.

Among the possible areas of research are cost-effectiveness studies related to health care delivery, and comparing the success of various clinical interventions, Berlowitz and Prashker say.

Dr. Paul Bleicher, chief executive officer of Optum Labs, said the partnerships will help Optum Labs “accelerate the pace of our innovation, paving the way for exciting new research initiatives that can be directly translated to improvements in patient care.”

Optum Labs—founded by health care company Optum and the Mayo Clinic in 2013—already has more than 20 major research initiatives underway, ranging from studies that compare the effectiveness of various medical devices, to research into how treatment patterns vary across geographic areas. Optum Labs encourages dissemination of research findings through publication in scientific journals and presentations at professional meetings. Several projects are slated for publication in mid-2014.

Optum is an arm of UnitedHealth Group, one of the country’s largest health care companies.

Dr. John Noseworthy, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, said the research collaborative is “excited to welcome the fresh insights and perspectives that new partners will bring.” In addition to having access to large sources of clinical and claims information, he said, “all partners will now benefit from the unique viewpoints that others bring, as we work to transform health care in the US.” and improve access and treatment.

Other new partners include: Lehigh Valley Health Network, of Allentown, Pennsylvania; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, of Troy, New York; and the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

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