From Dinosaurs to Data Visualization

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Assistant Professor Uba Backonja's childhood fascination with Jurassic Park cultivated her interest in science and the world.

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Uba Backonja has a framed screen shot of a Tweet reaction on her office shelf. It reads “Sam Neill likes your Tweet” and includes a picture of Neill, the actor known for his role as Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. “It’s one of the highlights of my life because Jurassic Park made such a big impression on me.”

A ten year-old Backonja read the book Jurassic Park five times during the summer between fifth and sixth grades. She then saw the movie a “ton” of times. “It really spoke to my interest in biology and the world,” said Dr. Backonja. “I really liked Dr. Sattler and Dr. Grant and wanted to be like them when I grew up.”

Dr. Backonja is originally from Wisconsin. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in biological anthropology. “I was pre-med, but it didn’t really seem to fit what I wanted to do,” said Backonja. “Biological anthropology was more holistic because it took into consideration where people lived, their interactions with other people and the environment.”

Dr. Backonja decided to take a year off from school after finishing her undergraduate degree. A professor told her about a field work opportunity to the Solomon Islands. The island chain is about a thousand miles northeast of Brisbane, Australia. “I had to fly to Australia then to the main city in the Solomon Islands and then fly to another, smaller city, and then take a canoe with a little motor on the back to the actual village where we were staying,” said Dr. Backonja.

Nursing & Healthcare Leadership Assistant Professor Uba Backonja: "I'm trying to understand what we need to think of when we're designing these visualizations to support the work of people who are using the data."Dr. Backonja, like Drs. Sattler and Grant, ventured to a distant corner of the globe. Although she didn’t find dinosaurs, she did discover something of value. “I really came to appreciate health promotion and disease prevention because there was a lot of preventable disease and injuries in the tiny little village where I lived,” she said.

The remoteness provided Dr. Backonja with a different perspective. “We’d go out and catch fish with a hand line,” she said. “Basically, you take a lure, wrap it around your hand and just drag it behind a boat.” The experience also presented an opportunity to work closely with the local population. “I liked the one-on-one care with the community,” said Dr. Backonja.

The field work lasted two months. Afterwards, Backonja returned home to Wisconsin. She hadn’t been back long when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Backonja traveled to New Orleans in October 2005, less than two months after the storm hit as a Disaster Services volunteer with the American Red Cross. She also conducted “windshield assessments” to try and “get a sense of who was home and who wasn’t” in order to see where help was needed. During those assessments, “You’d see things like a boat stuck in a tree or a car smashed into the side of a house.”

The destruction in New Orleans opened Dr. Backonja’s eyes. “It really made apparent to me the issue of social inequity,” she said. “Certain communities were devastated more than others. There were wealthy neighborhoods that were impacted, but poorer neighborhoods had fewer resources and less opportunity than others to recover.  This experience led me down a path of working to support marginalized communities.”

Backonja returned to school, earning a master’s and Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I like the perspective of nursing because it allows you to focus more on health promotion and on understanding the context in which people lived,” she said. While in graduate school Backonja got a chance to work on Project HealthDesign. The Robert Wood Foundation-funded project looked into the “power and potential of personal health records.” “This work showed me how technology could play a role in supporting disease management and health promotion in everyday life.”

While working with a Project HealthDesign grantee, Dr. Backonja helped evaluate data visualizations created for high school students about their own health that were then shared with their healthcare providers. “I got to see how visualizations look really cool, but were confusing to health care providers,” she said. “They saw value in having a quick snapshot of data, but needed it be presented in a different way.”

Backonja visited Vancouver, British Columbia, as a child and fell in love with the area. “I told myself I want to end up here,” she said. Dr. Backonja’s interest in nursing, public health and data visualization lead her to Seattle and a National Library of Medicine Biomedical Informatics Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “I focused specifically on getting data visualization training and experience,” she said.

Dr. Backonja came to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2016. She teaches multiple courses in the Nursing & Healthcare Leadership program including data analytics and an introductory course in health informatics. She is also co-investigator on Solutions in Health Analytics for Rural Equity across the Northwest (SHARE-NW), a five-year project to identify, gather, and visualize data with public health leaders to more effectively address rural health disparities and achieve health equity in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska.

SHARE-NW is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. “The idea is to develop a dashboard that supports data sharing, data use and data gathering for rural public health departments in these states,” said Backonja. “We specifically want to understand and address health disparities in these communities.”

An early example of data visualization from Florence Nightingale. The Rose Diagram shows that more British troops died from epidemic illness than battlefield wounds during the Crimean War. Backonja keeps a copy of the diagram on her office door.Dr. Backonja and others on the SHARE-NW team are currently interviewing stakeholders to determine their data and visualization needs. “A lot of data visualizations grow out of massive data sets,” said Dr. Backonja. “We’re working with smaller datasets from smaller populations which presents some unique challenges. There are privacy concerns if you’re working with a community of 200 people and you create a visualization that could impact their privacy or sense of safety.”

For Dr. Backonja, childhood fascination has turned into reality. Her early love of science and exploration led her around the world and to the place she always wanted to be. It has been an adventure….twenty or so years in the making.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / June 20, 2018
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or