Student-designed portal connects health researchers

A group of 11 people stand outdoors in front of a building at UNBC's Prince George campus.
L-R: Graduate Computer Science student Saurabh Kulkarni; Health Research Institute (HRI) Administrative Assistant Bree Loeffler; graduate student Febina M Rajesh; undergraduate students Kai Toyata, Harshika, and Marshall Brown; graduate student Kavya Renganathan; UNBC faculty member and HRI Connect user Dr. Sean Maurice; UNBC Computer Science and Commerce Professor Dr. Waqar Haque; and HRI Leadership Council Co-Leads Dr. Margot Parkes and Dr. Sarah Gray.

Prince George, B.C. - A new foundation for connecting health researchers is in place thanks to an innovative project powered by the expertise of students, faculty and staff. 

A unique learning experience led to the creation of the HRI Connect portal, part of the University of Northern British Columbia’s Health Research Institute (HRI). The cloud-based databank enables researchers to easily find others with similar interests at UNBC, in the North, and beyond.

“The purpose of membership in the HRI is to provide a means for researchers and their partners to join together to further health research and innovation,” says Leana Garraway, HRI Manager. “HRI Connect is a great tool to facilitate members networking and facilitating connections, providing an online database for researchers to set up a profile, showcase their research interests, and make connections with others.”

Four people look at a computer screen in the Teaching and Learning atrium at UNBC

The HRI Connect portal was created in Dr. Waqar Haque’s Business Intelligence Research Group (BIRG) lab. Dr. Haque, a UNBC professor in Computer Science and Commerce, brought together a mix of eight UNBC graduate and undergraduate students who worked on the extracurricular project at various times over an 18-month development period. The project received support through the Office of Research and Innovation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“The portal was developed using state-of-the-art technologies in my lab, but for broader use and long-term viability, it had to be deployed in the cloud,” explains Dr. Haque. “To help further their learning journeys, students were given the task of exploring various deployment models to build a cost-effective solution. The portal was first deployed to BIRG lab’s cloud environment which used more than a dozen services, and it was then migrated to UNBC’s corporate cloud.”

The migration with the HRI Connect portal marked the first major production deployment in the cloud for UNBC. The techniques developed on the project will be used to migrate other projects to the UNBC cloud in the future.

The migration with the HRI Connect portal marked the first major production deployment in the cloud for UNBC. The techniques developed on the project will be used to migrate other projects to the UNBC cloud in the future.

As a part of the development team for HRI Connect, students pursued the practical application of skills and further enhanced their knowledge base. 

“It gave me an opportunity to showcase technical skills I was learning concurrently with my major,” says Shrey Shrey, a fourth-year Computer Science undergraduate student. “What helped further inspire me was the thought that this project has an actual need that would help people.” 

“Seeing an application we developed in our lab being used by hundreds across BC is truly awe-inspiring,” adds Kavyapriya Renganathan, a Computer Science graduate student. “The best part of this project, for me, was the continuous learning and growth it offered. Each day brought fresh challenges and discoveries, expanding my skills and knowledge.” 

The Health Research Institute’s administration team was excited to collaborate with Dr. Haque and the student team on the project.

“Without Waqar’s vision of an online searchable database, this would not have come to fruition. Waqar and his students were so committed to developing this amazing tool for us,” says Leana. “They built HRI Connect from scratch, which took hundreds of hours, and they ensured that it fit the HRI’s needs and was user friendly.”  

The HRI is now able to better manage and communicate with their membership, and HRI members are able to more intuitively interact with each other.

Dr. Haque points out that matching research partners is now only a matter of a few clicks.

“Health researchers from UNBC and the broader community can add their profiles on the portal and connect with other researchers at UNBC with similar research interests. And with the portal deployed in the cloud, it is accessible from anywhere in the world.”

The HRI Connect initiative also leaves a lasting impact on the UNBC students that participated on the development team.

“The students refined various skills over their time with this project, and gained valuable experience working in a team and learning from peers,” says Dr. Haque. “And it’s helped them gain traction in the labour market with some already working in the health sector and local industry.“

Reflecting on his time with the team, Kai Toyata, a recent graduate from the Computer Science program, notes that his favourite part of the project was looking back to the beginning. “The whole project went from a proof of concept to a mature piece of software deployed to the public. Every day we would go in and do little fixes and improvements; these accumulated into a massive accomplishment.”

“Initiatives like this offered through UNBC and Dr. Haque provide immense value to students and help shape our future careers,” says Computer Science graduate student Saurabh Kulkarni. “Providing opportunities for hands-on learning in real-world projects is instrumental in preparing us for success beyond academia.”