A love of science, data, and problem-solving leads to “The Ambrosia Project”

PHOTOGRAPHER: PROVIDED PHOTO
Sarah Maston, a local graduate, presents The Ambrosia Project at an IBM conference.PHOTOGRAPHER: PROVIDED PHOTO Sarah Maston, a local graduate, presents The Ambrosia Project at an IBM conference.

By Indiana Nash

Sarah Maston is not a linear thinker.

But that’s exactly what’s led her to create The Ambrosia Project, a data platform that provides an in-depth way to connect food/nutrition data with data on diseases.

“It’s been a whirlwind past four months,” Maston said. In July, the project won the Eminence and Excellence Award from IBM, as well as the Blue Unicorn contest, giving it financial backing and guidance from the tech giant.

But the seeds of the project began decades ago when Maston was growing up in Schenectady.

“My parents’ version of childcare involved running around in the lab that my mom ran behind my dad’s practice in Schenectady,” Maston said. Her father’s practice operated on Union Street in the 1970s and 1980s.

Her mother, Lynne Maston, ran a full service medical lab until she was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in 1987.

“I would run iced tea and milk through the centrifuge as many times as I could,” Maston remembered.

Although Maston’s enthusiasm usually ended in a broken beaker or two, it’s where her fascination with all things science came to life.

Her love of programming came in a bit later when her dad introduced her to an Apple II+ computer.

“I walked home one day from school and my father took me into the dining room in our house on Stratford Road in the GE Plot,” Maston said. There he showed her the computer and gave her a programming book to learn Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

“But that sort of fell off my radar for a little while,” Maston said.

During college at Boston University, she started out as a pre-med major but soon switched to psychology and women’s studies.

She was the first to get her Bachelor’s Degree in Women’s Studies from the university in 1995.

While she came away from college with a passion for the humanities, her love of programming and data-based learning never left.

In 1998, she landed a job as a developer at Meditech, a medical information technology company based in Boston.

“That was my first real programming job,” Maston said.

But over the years it’s become one of many. Maston has programmed for Monster, Boston Medical Center, Bytecode IO, and IBM.

Illness struck Maston in 2002, baffling her doctors and leading to countless medical tests and examinations with no definitive results.

“I was suffering from so many symptoms that doctors didn’t know what to do with me and each incorrect attempt to medicate these symptoms was compounding my illness,” Maston said.

Luckily, she decided to go see the movie “Super Size Me.”

“… this was my aha moment,” Maston said.

After the movie ended, and the proverbial curtain fell, she walked out of the theater with a hypothesis: Obesity had something to do with liver malfunction.

Maston immediately bought several medical textbooks on pathophysiology and some on anatomy and got to work.

The idea to connect these two functions is what grew into The Ambrosia Project.

It’s a data platform that builds a bridge between all the information available about foods and links it with diseases and medical issues using the nutrients and phytochemicals mapped to the physical responses that the body has to them.

It connects those dots using cognitive technology, and for IBM that means Watson (an artificially intelligent computer system that has the capability to answer questions in a natural language, rather than only in code).

For those not in the medical or nutrition sciences field, here’s an example that Maston often uses to break the project down:

“The beet contains the phytochemical betanin. Betanin we all know about because it gives the beet the red coloring. Betanin is also connected to lessening tumor growth in a number of cancers,” Maston said.

From a user perspective, if someone wanted to know what foods to eat to help reduce the number of migraines they have, the database would bring together all research findings on what foods help to reduce this and on why. Ushering in a new evolution of food based apps and also creating a resource for a new research resource to aid the medical community and nutritional scientists of the world,” Maston said.

But it took years of work to get it there.

In 2006, her ideas were not well-received by the doctors she spoke with.

“I’m not a clinician, and I’m not a doctor. But I am a process architect and a data architect,” Maston said.

Confident that her ideas had value, she began attending night classes at Harvard University’s Extension School degree program for information management, taking computer science classes to gain the technological skills she needed to develop her idea.

“In 2015, I was invited to join IBM as a data solution architect. I invented something called Simple Data Pipe, which was a data warehouse solution and it was because of this project that I met Sam Lightstone,” Maston said.

Lightstone was the first person she showed The Ambrosia Project to.

“It was last November that I showed him my picture of a beet and said “What if we could make this a data platform and bring how I think about food to the world?’ ”

Since then, Maston has worked with Lightstone on bringing that platform to fruition and to win the approval and financial backing of IBM.

Mike Elsmore, another developer at IBM, volunteered to build the proof of concept for the nutrition graph, some of the project’s first visuals.

With The Ambrosia Project, the possibilities for end-use are limitless, she said.

Maston has been working alongside other developers, doctors and clinicians to make the project all encompassing and to push its capabilities.

For now, the alpha version has been published internally within IBM, but Maston and her team are working to have the project published publicly.

When Maston looks back at her start, she has many people to thank, but her mom usually comes to mind first.

“My mom died on Nov. 23 and I’m about to outlive her this year. It’s a crazy thought,” Maston said.

But she knows her mom would have been beyond proud to see what The Ambrosia Project has and what it will become.