When Bioinformatics and Computational Biology graduate student Alyssa Tsiros found out that she would need to complete an extensive project for a class on biovisualization, she never imagined that it would end up taking her 3,000 miles across the ocean.

As part of the class, Tsiro was tasked with creating a visualization pertaining to a significant topic in biology. At first, she struggled to come up with a relevant subject.

“As a graduate student who is pursuing an internship option instead of a thesis, I did not have a bank of research that a biovisualization could contribute to,” says Tsiros. “Fortunately, assistant professor of computer science Lane Harrison, told me about the BioVis design competition.”

The international competition, part of the annual Symposium on Biological Data Visualization, challenged participants to create a visualization depicting the evolution of noncoding RNA in the Human accelerated region 1 (HAR1)—a recently discovered gene that may be responsible for the accelerated brain development of humans compared to other mammals.

Tsiros began her project by interviewing researchers in fields ranging from computer science to evolutionary biology and genetics. She quickly realized that the chart types commonly used to depict genetic data would not provide a full picture of HAR1’s evolution. Her project, “Visualizing ncRNA Structural Evolution with Arc Diagrams,” proposed a redesign using color-coded arc diagrams.

"These diagrams show base pairings of the different genes along the same scale, so that viewers can easily identify differences or similarities in secondary structures,” says Tsiros.

With Lane’s support, Tsiros not only submitted her project to one BioVis challenge, but also met the criteria for a second design challenge. In late May they were notified that the project had been accepted, and Tsiros was invited to give both a poster presentation and short talk on her research at the BioVis symposium on July 10-11 in Dublin, Ireland.

“Everything took place very quickly,” says Tsoris, who had only a few weeks to prepare her presentations and incorporate feedback from conference reviewers. “Every second of the day was perfectly planned to complete what we did in the given amount of time.”

At the conference Tsiros presented her work alongside several prominent biovisualization researchers and also had the opportunity to attend a number of sessions addressing the many challenges faced by biologists in gaining insight from large and complex data sets. During the closing ceremony, she was thrilled to find out that she had won an honorable mention for her original design project.

“I’m really proud of the honorable mention,” says Tsiros. “It was such a great feeling to be called up on stage with professors and other researchers who are at the forefront of biovisualization tools and techniques.”

The experience has also inspired Tsiros to continue her research as part of her graduate study.

“I received so much positive feedback from people involved with the competition,” says Tsiros. “The biologist who provided the data for the challenge personally told me that our project was her favorite, and several others asked me if there was a tool available to upload sequences and produce the figure. I think that's where I'd like this project go next.”