An interview with project grant awardee Anh Nguyet Vu

Today we’re interviewing Anh Nguyet Vu. She is the recipient of one of our Project Grants. With MyFitnessPal Miner she not only brings a new data source to Open Humans, she is also working on visualizing these data and connecting them to genetic data. 

Hey Anh Nguyet, please give our blog readers a quick introduction about who you are! How did you come up with the idea behind MyFitnessPal Miner?

Generally I wouldn’t want to introduce myself by talking about my problems, but in this case it does give you the story behind the project. So when I was a freshman in undergrad, I faced a problem that would eventually lead to the development of MyFitnessPal Miner. This problem, no doubt a familiar one for many others, was weight gain. Since I was (and am) the kind of person who believes that “what cannot be measured cannot be managed”, I started tracking dietary intake. Because I was already tracking what I was eating, I became interested in the quantified self movement, and it wasn’t long before I was convinced that collecting other types of data would be valuable. I experimented with many food logging tools, including MyFitnessPal (which was never my primary app, but it happens to be the most popular one today). I also tried a variety of activity and exercise trackers before Fitbit hit mainstream. Probably my most earnest project was tracking how much time was spent on different activities, down to a minute’s resolution, over a span of three months.

It was inevitable that I would want to incorporate genetic data. To gather all the other kinds of data without considering your personal genetics is to miss out on a crucial part — especially if you wanted to optimize health, as I was a little obsessive about. I had a self-defined area of concentration called “personalized medicine” (also known as “precision medicine”) for my undergraduate major at Stanford. I think more people understand personalized medicine as tailoring drug treatments for an individual’s genetic makeup, but if you believe in “food as medicine”, then it should encompass nutrition as well.

Your project MyFitnessPal Miner was awarded one of the Open Humans project grants. Can you explain us what the project is about?

MyFitnessPal Miner exists with three goals. The first is about making the data more accessible, allowing you to get your own data in a format useful for other projects, including ones on Open Humans. The app ports your data to standard .csv files and does some additional parsing to create potentially useful tags. For example, it tries to recognize instances of fast food by matching records containing restaurant chain names.

The second goal is integrating that data with current genetic resources. There are some really interesting studies on how your genetics influences and interacts with your diet, such as your preferences for salty/sweet/bitter foods, risk for specific food intolerances, and how you’d react to a low-carb versus a high-carb diet. When curating these kinds of studies, I think that many people must also be curious about how the findings apply to them. So if you have 23andMe data and MyFitnessPal data, the app gives you a kind of integrated dashboard of genetics and nutritional behavior. You might, for instance, be able to see that your fast food consumption is greater than average, and that this seems congruent with what a published study has found given your genetic variants. Or next to the summary of your actual sodium intake, you might notice the relevant finding that your genetics predict that your blood pressure is fairly sensitive to how much salt you’re eating. However, because MyFitnessPal doesn’t contain explicit data for vitamins and minerals, not every related published finding can be connected with your real-life dietary data, unless the app can be made to intelligently infer vitamin and mineral intake from the food records.

Beyond comparing existing information, through the app it should be possible to use your real-life dietary data along with your genetic data to suggest something new. This third goal is kind of a reach goal given the limited time frame I have, but it’s the essence of an Open Humans project. I’d still have to think about the questions that are feasible and the methodology for them. Hopefully it won’t be just me, and there will be people in the Open Humans community who’d want to build upon MyFitnessPal Miner.

I do also hope that there will be interest outside of Open Humans. You can recall that all of this started not with my interest in genetics, but with food tracking. Well, it’s the start of a new year, and there will be a lot of people doing that as they pursue a healthier lifestyle. Some will seek understanding of their calorie and macronutrient patterns and then be hungry for additional value from their collected data. Being shown where the genetics tie in to create that additional value can perhaps entice people to bring their genetic data to the project, and therefore to Open Humans.  

When and how did you come to Open Humans?

I consider myself a relatively new member of Open Humans, since I joined in the fall of 2017. Around that time I was doing research for a start-up, where a colleague mentioned Open Humans and said making his genetic data public was something he wouldn’t do. I, on the other hand, was someone who was already quite open, having been to quantified self meetings to hear others share their data and insights and to share mine.

Have you been involved in any projects on Open Humans so far, either as a participant or even running your own?

When I joined Open Humans, I made my data accessible to all studies. I would think more about running my own study after finishing the development of MyFitnessPal Miner.

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