In Jennifer Munson’s lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, researchers study interstitial fluid flow – the movement of fluid through the spaces between cells and blood vessels in the human body – in search of better ways to treat the deadly brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme.

They create tissue-engineered models of the tumor microenvironment and use data to create two-dimensional representations of tumors.

But one day in December, they found themselves virtually inside a glioblastoma brain tumor – a 3D visualization created with their data.

Standing inside a room-sized cube in the Visionarium, a red blob representing a tumor floated before and around them, wrapped in gray tubes portraying fluid flowing through the cancer. A richer knowledge of fluid in tumors could lead to advancements in understanding how glioblastoma tumors spread and how fluid flow may affect the delivery of cancer drugs to them.

Inside the cube, team members saw their research data in a fresh way. Using a remote control, lab members lifted and rotated and zoomed into the tumor, instantly noticing things they hadn’t before.

“There's a big appetite, especially in the surgical world, to have better ways to understand what a tissue or tumor looks like from different angles,” said Munson, also associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. “There’s a similar value for us, being able to see the tumor from below or the side and really think about how you might affect that tumor with treatment. It just gives us a lot more information.”

The Visionarium opened in the late 1990s, the first of its kind in an academic institution, and has undergone continual upgrades to remain a world-class facility. The Visionarium is part of Advanced Research Computing, a unit of the Division of Information Technology dedicated to providing centralized research computing infrastructure, data storage, consulting services, software, and support for the Virginia Tech research community with resources available to faculty and students across all disciplines. 

Nicholas Polys, director of visualization in the Advanced Research Computing unit, and his team use data supplied by faculty across numerous disciplines and create 3D models of complex systems – from architectural plans to airflow in heating ventilation and air conditioning designs, from the cardiovascular system to brain tumors.

“Every time that we help connect a project with its real-world impact, it’s a fantastic feeling,” Polys said.

Visualizations can quickly help a researcher or designer debug a system or recognize an error in an equation, and it overcomes barriers in language and vocabulary, he said, because everyone is seeing the same thing in front of them.

“It’s the greatest common denominator in the knowledge economy,” Polys said. “A good visualization is like a smile. It’s universal.”

Munson team in 3D glasses
Cancer researcher Jennifer Munson (from left), research associate Skylar Davis, and graduate research assistants Cora Carman Esparza and Samantha Howerton try on special glasses that allow them to see the visualization of the Munson Lab’s research data in 3D. Photo by Matt Chittum for Virginia Tech.

Munson first saw the Visionarium’s potential when she invited Polys to a class to show students an animated visualization of blood flowing through veins.

“I was amazed with how we can look at our data and how we can get more information from it,” she said.

When she hired Jessica Cunningham, a mathematician and computational scientist, Munson assigned her to work with Polys on visualizing the lab’s fluid flow data.

“So I come down here and I meet Nick and we immediately spoke the same language, and I think that was the magical thing,” said Cunningham, a research scientist in the Munson Lab.

Cunningham visualizes the raw data in her head while working with it in the lab, but struggles to explain it to others.

And then you just come here to the Visionarium and there it is,” she said, “just how I see it in my head. And then everyone gets to share it, and that’s wonderful.”

The Munson team’s December visit to the Visionarium is just the beginning of the relationship. Lab members can also learn to use the development software and create their own visualizations.

They were already buzzing with possibilities.

“I think we have no lack of ideas,” Munson said. “So hopefully we don’t overwhelm the Visionarium with all the things we want to do.”

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