Science & Tech

HSCI creates Web presence for research

4 min read

Online stem cell textbook seeks to inform academic, professional communities

The Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) and the Harvard Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC) have launched an online stem cell textbook that seeks to engage and inform the stem cell community as it presents up-to-date stem cell science in a format useful to scientists and students.

Though created by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, “StemBook” is a collaboration between scientists at Harvard and across the globe. The site launched in early September with 16 chapters. About 80 chapters have been commissioned so far, to be written by stem cell scientists around the world, according to Lisa Girard, the HSCI’s science editor.

“It’s really something that’s going to grow and evolve,” Girard said. “We could have 800 chapters with the amount of information out there. We’re only limited by our ability to control the quality.”

Each chapter will be peer-reviewed and updated every two years by the author to ensure that the site stays current. Chapters are written journal-style, with beginning abstracts, figures, and notes. The online format allows a rich reading experience, with links within the text to a glossary of relevant terms, to sources in each chapter’s notes, and to online databases of relevant journal articles from which the chapter’s material is taken.

Girard said the idea for “StemBook” came from her experience as a biologist studying C. elegans, a roundworm whose simple physical systems have made it a laboratory model for scientists.

Girard worked on a similar project for the roundworm, called “WormBook,” which contains a large library of chapters on C. elegans biology, written by scientists working on the worm. Girard said “WormBook’s” more than 140 chapters are immensely popular in the C. elegans research community, having achieved something on the order of 100,000 hits per month. Once it gets up and running, Girard expects “StemBook” to be equally popular.

David Schaffer, professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of one of the chapters in “StemBook,” said that the fact that stem cell biology is a relatively new field makes an online resource such as “StemBook” — which can be frequently updated with new information and revisions of old information — particularly appropriate.

Schaffer said “StemBook” fills a niche that in more established fields is filled by print textbooks and review articles in scientific journals.

“You need something a bit more nimble when the field is at its birth,” Schaffer said. “I think it’s a great concept. We’re very glad to be a part of this and look forward to reading all the other articles over the next few months.”

The site is a collaboration with Harvard’s Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC). Tim Clark, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, core member of the IIC, and a principal investigator of the “StemBook” project, together with project manager Sudeshna Das developed what Clark called a “collaborative framework” for the site that allows it to grow and allows interaction between researchers and interconnection between the site and other online sources, such as databases of journal articles.

“‘StemBook’ is not just an online journal,” Das said. “’StemBook’ is meant to be an interactive journal; it’s meant to be an online discussion of biology.”

The framework allows the site to link to others that are built using the same technology but centered on other subjects, such as specific diseases. The common Web site framework will allow researchers in different scientific communities to communicate with each other, allowing cross-sharing of information in what Clark said was not just a scientific community built around a specific subject, but a “community of communities.”

“There’s a lot of interesting cross-fertilization,” Clark said.