At the Gleacher Center on August 6, the Master of Science in Biomedical Informatics (MScBMI) program hosted its first New Student Day where newly accepted students had the opportunity to learn more about the program by networking with current students, observing an alumni panel, and sitting in on a biomedical informatics course.
In introductory remarks that focused on the unique set of healthcare challenges the MScBMI program’s curriculum prepares its graduates to tackle, faculty director Dr. Sam Volchenboum, a practicing pediatric oncologist and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Chicago, described a discontinuity he has faced throughout his career between healthcare workers and computer scientists.
Citing two examples where the gap separating the two domains yielded unnecessary obstacles, he emphasized that those preparing to enter the MScBMI program were in the unique position to bridge these two domains while offering solutions that will have a decisive impact on people’s lives.
"Being bridge builders and having the capacity to speak the different languages—and then to translate and connect the different areas together—that’s really where the magic is.” —Krishna Ramachandran, MScBMI Instructor
“For me that has always been the discontinuity,” he said. “We have lots of people in this world who are great at doing computer and data science, and lots of people who are passionate about healthcare and medicine, but traditionally we haven’t done a good job of getting these groups to work together well. That’s exactly what we teach. We teach you how to think not just about the medicine side of things, or just the computer science side, but about both of those things together. And you can really change lives that way.”
Highlighting what sets the MScBMI program apart from similar programs around the country, Dr. Volchenboum noted how other programs tend to focus on specific areas in informatics—such as machine learning or particular aspects of genomics—whereas the MScBMI program has a holistic focus. He went on to note the strategic importance of professionals today who possess an understanding of the full purview of the healthcare landscape.
“What you’ll find is that you’ll soon become the only person in the room—sitting alongside physicians, computer programmers, and people who work in clinical trials—who understands enough to put it all together,” he told the new students in the room. “I guarantee you’ll have this moment in your career where the whole room will turn to you and say, ‘How do we do this?’ and you’ll say to yourself immediately, ‘Oh, I know how to do that.’”
The alumni panel was moderated by Krishna Ramachandran, instructor for the MScBMI Big and Little Data class and vice president at BlueCross BlueShield where he is responsible for initiatives such as Health Data Exchange, Provider Reporting, and Value Based Care to improve health outcomes and care affordability across five states and 16 million members. The discussion built on Dr. Volchenboum’s comments while responding to inquiries from the audience, ranging from the panelists’ experience in the program to their careers since graduating.
“I could lend the clinical perspective to the conversation and [my classmates] could lend their technical expertise. That was actually a highlight of the program for me. By being in the classroom with people who have those varying skillsets, it makes the classes great primers for the sort of landscape you’ll be entering once you graduate." —Melissa Byrn, MScBMI Alumna
Melissa Byrn, who ran the University of Chicago’s central clinical research offices before accepting a position at the Polsky Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship after graduating, noted that the program is very customizable and that students, depending on their circumstances, can progress through it at their own pace. She also noted that, despite entering without a great deal of computer programming experience, she was able to take advantage and become friends with classmates whose backgrounds were in computer science.
“We were able to help each other out,” she said. “I could lend the clinical perspective to the conversation and they could lend their technical expertise. That was actually a highlight of the program for me. By being in the classroom with people who have those varying skillsets, it makes the classes great primers for the sort of landscape you’ll be entering once you graduate. In that way, you’re already gaining an ability to understand and relate to these other areas.”
Andrei Prokurat, who took a job at Howard Brown Health as a 340B and pharmacy specialist after graduating, emphasized the mentors he gained through the program. Having entered with the idea of working in the start up environment, he came to appreciate not only the limitations of working in such a world, where the available data is often insufficient, but also the enormous contributions to be made in many other areas.
“One thing the program will give you is the ability to see gaps in all sorts of different spaces,” Andrei said. “You don’t always need to invent something brand new to make an impact. There are lots of things that just don’t work and the program gives you the knowledge and skills to start making connections. From there, you can begin to make the important contributions that remove obstacles affecting patient care.”
Summing the panel discussion up before sending the new students off for their sample classes, Krishna emphasized not only the scale of the problem graduates will be engaged in facing, but also the excitement of the challenge and the abundance of opportunities to make a difference.
“You are the future,” he said. “We’re spending trillions of dollars each year as a nation on healthcare. No one sector within the industry can solve the problems before us. Being bridge builders and having the capacity to speak the different languages—and then to translate and connect the different areas together—that’s really where the magic is.”