Exposome: showing how climate change impacts global health

How entering the CDE 22 Hackathon taught me a lot

A hackathon is a great way to challenge yourself, explore new research avenues and meet fellow researchers. I participated in a challenge to visualise the effects of climate change on the exposome: a person’s cumulative lifetime exposures to environmental factors and their related biological responses. Some intense 48 hours led to 3rd place for our visualisation tool, lots of new knowledge and research ideas and last but not least: lots of fun.

It all started a few weeks back when I had a chat with Mehdi Khoury, a senior research fellow at the Center for Water Systems of the University of Exeter, over lunch at the KWR restaurant. He told me about the CDE 22 Hackathon, which would be a parallel event to the Constructing a Digital Environment (CDE) 2022 conference at the University of Birmingham. I was somewhat familiar with the concept of hackathons, although I had never participated in one, so I was eager to formulate a team and take on the challenge. The theme of the hackathon was bridging science with the public through art, and we discussed creating a visualisation tool regarding the concept of the exposome, a research field that we became aware of during a conference in Mykonos in June. Being involved in a European Project regarding regional climate resilience, we found that presentation very intriguing and possibly useful for our research. This hackathon would thus provide the perfect opportunity for us to become more informed about the concept of the exposome, sharpen and test our technical skills, as well as communicate a rather unknown research field of the medical sciences to the broader public.

The exposome concept

Human health is influenced not only by genetic factors, but also by environmental exposures (such as air pollutants, chemicals, radiation et cetera) and psychosocial stress. To help scientists study the effects that non-genetic factors have on human health, the exposome paradigm was proposed in 2005. The exposome can be described as a person’s cumulative lifetime exposure to environmental factors and their related biological responses. Apart from direct health effects on individuals, the exposome can also alter genetic factors, which may be passed down to future generations creating additional health concerns. It is thus easily inferred that climate change will impact the human exposome, as the environmental conditions are projected to change at rates significantly higher than in previous centuries. Alternating rainfall patterns, water and air quality issues, rising temperatures and climatic variables changes are among the things that create a rather complicated picture, which in connection with the fact that the exposome refers to cumulative lifetime exposures, render the study of the exposome rather hard and a field of active research, as we came to discover.

The hackathon experience

Simply put, a hackathon (hack + marathon) is an event where programmers get together for a short period to collaborate on a project. In practical terms, it means few hours of sleep, lots of caffeine, countless challenges and an even greater amount of fun. This particular hackathon was being held in a hybrid format, so I participated online from my apartment in Utrecht. While this hybrid format allowed me to participate, I came to experience that coordination can be more challenging when working online (especially in time-intensive situations) and that the aspects of interpersonal connection and communication were decreased. Diving into more technical details, we acquired data from the CMIP6 climate projections, transformed them into useful formats and tailored them to our needs, gathered studies linking them to human health and created a globe visualisation (see picture below) that shed light on possible future health impacts if climate targets are not met, based on exposure to different environmental factors as a fetus, infant, adult, or elderly. In the end, our team took 3rd place in an intense and fun 48-hour period that gave me a valuable and memorable experience!

A well-deserved shoutout to my team members Mehdi Khoury, Senior Research at the Center for Water Systems of UNEXE, and Gordon Rates, Software Developer and Air Quality Analysis Specialist at AirNode, for the excellent collaboration.

You can try our visualisation tool here. (Please be lenient, it might not be optimised for viewing on smaller laptop screens, as 48hrs is not a lot of time to prepare a fully working application – we would love to improve on it in the future. You can read more about our entry here.

The other teams also came up with nice visualisations.

Screenshot of the exposome tool

Screenshot of the exposome tool

Final thoughts

In closing, I can confidently say that I am glad I participated in this hackathon, as it provided me with a plethora of lessons and experiences as well as ideas about possible future research avenues. When dealing with climate resilience research (such as in the ARSINOE-project, where KWR collaborates with many institutions around Europe), the exposome can provide useful insights into the human health aspects. Of course, there is certainly a lot more to explore, and the input of experts in this particular area is needed. I believe that KWR, with its expertise, can provide useful insights to the scientific community regarding this topic because water can be a major influencing exposure factor and there are many current and future water-related challenges.  Finally, as I experienced it, hackathons are a great medium to spark innovative ideas, sharpen technical and soft skills, facilitate team bonding, create new collaborations and have a great time!