Team science at the heart of UWM’s PhD in Biomedical and Health Informatics

Fifteen years ago, UWM and the Medical College of Wisconsin worked together to launch the state’s first doctoral program in biomedical and health informatics. The robust program combines medical science with information technology to advance patient care, public health, life sciences research and health professional education.

It has been strong from the start and today remains the only such PhD program in Wisconsin, graduating two or three students annually who are fully prepared for careers in this high-demand field.

Below, the program’s co-director, Susan McRoy, professor, computer science, discusses the careers graduates are pursuing, the diversity of the student body, and how the growing importance of interdisciplinary collaborations in the sciences.

What is the advantage of an interdisciplinary program?

Team science is better able than silos to address many of the complex problems of today’s world. Biomedical and health informatics brings together people from various disciplines who have the same goal. For example, students who study translational informatics share the goal of decreasing the time it takes for a discovery made in the lab to find clinical applications. To reach this goal you need experts looking at the problem from various vantage points.

How is the program run? 

This interdisciplinary program is housed in the College of Engineering & Applied Science and is run collaboratively by a steering committee comprised of faculty representative from the Medical College of Wisconsin, the College of Engineering & Applied Science, the College of Nursing, the Lubar School of Business, the College of Health Sciences, the School of Information Studies and the Zilber School of Public Health.

This committee has two co-directors – one from UWM, one from the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Who applies to this doctoral program?

 Each year, about nine people apply; we admit three or four so that at any time, between 20 and 25 students are in the program. Nearly all applicants hold master’s degrees in related fields but a few have been admitted who hold bachelor’s degrees in computer science, business or a health field. Nearly all have participated in a professional society, such as AMIA, and some have held leadership positions on committees.

The program attracts a diverse group across ethnicity and gender. Students come from countries worldwide including the United States, Benin, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Thailand and China. Of our graduates, 12 are female and two are from under-represented minorities, which mirrors- our current enrollment.

If I was a student, what could I expect?

 You would select one of six tracks. No matter what track you chose, you would take courses and receive faculty mentorship from across many disciplines at UWM – combining informatics with disciplines of health care and health administration, public health, biology, and medical imaging and instrumentation.

Your coursework would include general research methods, such as data analysis, and the more specialized subdiscipline that you chose, such as knowledge-based systems or public health informatics.

You would be tested on your proficiency in data management, human pathophysiology and medical terminology, ethics, and the main concepts of the discipline.

You would most likely publish and present your research. Since 2013, our students have collectively published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and given more than 40 presentations.

What careers are graduates pursuing?

We have 23 graduates and most are pursuing careers in biomedical and health-related fields including public policy, public health, cancer research and data analytics. No matter where they emigrated from, a lot have found jobs in North America working to improve the quality of healthcare delivery, research and education.

Three are now tenured or tenure-track faculty members. Abut ten work in biomedical and health informatics-related research for healthcare providers. One was recently selected for a postdoctoral fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our many notable graduates include Mary Shimoyama [now the program’s co-director and associate professor, biomedical engineering, Genomic Sciences and Precision Medicine Center, Medical College of Wisconsin] and Akshat Kapoor [assistant professor, health services and information management, East Carolina University].

How was the program started?

 I flushed out the idea with Peter Haddawy [then faculty at UWM, now a senior fellow at  Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg] and Dr. Charles Kahn [then a professor of radiology at the Medical College, now at the University of Pennsylvania]. Together, we brought awareness of biomedical and health informatics to the UWM community and showed how our students and our university would benefit from this program.

The initial steering committee of faculty members across campus addressed the mechanics of the program.

K Vairivan [professor emeritus, electrical engineering and computer science] was UWM’s first co-director. As chair of the Department of Computer Science, he created the strategy and planning documents for a graduate program that would be unlike any other at UWM. The program would not exist without him. KV engendered cooperation for the program campus-wide.

Fifteen years later, it’s safe to say that the Doctoral Program in Biomedical and Health Informatics has proven an excellent example of how UWM can create and manage a successful, complex interdisciplinary degree.