Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grant to fuel computing projects at Van Andel Institute, Grand Valley State University

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (October 5, 2022) — A collaboration between Van Andel Institute and Grand Valley State University to make data more accessible to researchers worldwide has received support through a $200,000 Data Insights grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The project addresses a central problem in modern, data-intensive biomedical research: how to efficiently store and analyze the massive data output from today’s technologies in a way that allows both researchers and citizen-scientists to unlock insights within.

For example, scientists can now catalog the differences between individual cells in extreme detail, illuminating variations that may contribute to cancer, Parkinson’s and many other diseases. But these answers are buried in vast swathes of data that must be analyzed and stored, a task that can be challenging even for high-powered computers.

Dr. Tim Triche, Van Andel Institute

“A central problem in science today is that our ability to generate data has outpaced our ability to analyze large, complex biological datasets,” said VAI Assistant Professor Tim Triche, Jr., Ph.D., the grant’s lead investigator. “Our goal is to improve access to powerful tools and allow exploration of the foundations of biology — how cells determine their fate, state and function; how cells interact with each other and their environment to produce health and disease; and how genetic variation between and within people influences the outcomes. By democratizing these tools, we seek to open up the field so that not just researchers or clinicians, but anyone with the desire to do so, can participate.”

Dr. Zachary DeBruine, Grand Valley State University

The project was born from the research of Zachary DeBruine, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow in Triche’s lab who earned his doctorate from Van Andel Institute Graduate School. DeBruine is now an assistant professor in Grand Valley State University’s Applied Computing Institute, which is housed in the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing. He also holds an adjunct position at VAI.

As part of his Ph.D. dissertation, DeBruine developed an elegant solution that repackages data files that are too big to run on a single computer into a compressed form. The resulting file requires 1/10th the computational space as the original without losing data or performance, making it much easier and faster to comb through data. The grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will allow Triche and DeBruine to refine and scale up this solution.

“We aim to make data analysis more accessible using simple solutions that don’t require resource-intensive computational pipelines or deep expertise in computer science,” DeBruine said. “Our efforts ensure that all researchers can analyze single-cell data. What that ultimately means is more people can work with information in ways that could shed new light on the diseases that impact so many.”

The project also strengthens the relationship between VAI and GVSU’s computational groups and provides new opportunities for research and scientific training.

“Dr. DeBruine has been breaking new ground in the field of bioinformatics and high-performance machine learning at Van Andel Institute,” said Jonathan Engelsma, Ph.D., Professor of Computing and Director of the Applied Computing Institute at GVSU. “This particular grant will provide more GVSU students the sort of research and experiential learning opportunities that the Applied Computing Institute has become known for.”


Van Andel Institute (VAI) is committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations through cutting edge biomedical research and innovative educational offerings. Established in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1996 by the Van Andel family, VAI is now home to more than 400 scientists, educators and support staff, who work with a growing number of national and international collaborators to foster discovery. The Institute’s scientists study the origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translate their findings into breakthrough prevention and treatment strategies. Our educators develop inquiry-based approaches for K-12 education to help students and teachers prepare the next generation of problem-solvers, while our Graduate School offers a rigorous, research-intensive Ph.D. program in molecular and cell biology. Learn more at vai.org.

Grand Valley State University attracts more than 21,000 students with high-quality programs and state-of-the-art facilities. Grand Valley is a comprehensive university serving students from across Michigan and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in 300+ areas of study from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids, and Holland, and from regional centers in Battle Creek, Detroit, Muskegon, and Traverse City. The university is dedicated to individual student achievement, going beyond the traditional classroom experience, with research opportunities and business partnerships.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was founded in 2015 to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease and improving education, to addressing the needs of our communities. Through collaboration, providing resources and building technology, our mission is to help build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit chanzuckerberg.com.