Collaborative effort leads to unique informatics degree program

MU's College of Engineering, College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Medicine see the need for a new breed of well-rounded researchers, and a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help the University of Missouri pave the way in health informatics.

"You train them how to run codes and programs, not to explain the meaning of the results. That's not what we'll train for. We're going to train people to really understand, " Chi-Ren Shyu, director of MU's Informatics Institute, said.

A new doctoral program is looking for six students for its first class, recruiting prospective students from life sciences, medicine and computing disciplines for a Ph.D. track in informatics based around the theme "Massive and Complex Data Analytics: Pre-doctoral Training in One Health." A total of 23 MU faculty members from various backgrounds will team up to instruct the students with the goal of creating a unique type of data analyst, one who can improve the speed of health discoveries through new abilities to analyze animal and human data using Big Data practices.

"From [animal testing] to clinical trials, normally that would take a long time. It could be 10 years," said the grant's principle investigator Chi-Ren Shyu, chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and director of the MU Informatics Institute. "So how are we going to speed up that process? A data-driven approach is very important. Quickly running through clinical trials from animal models, then using Big Data processing, should hopefully shorten the gap.

"That's the breed of informatricians we want to train — those who can take the animal language and translate it into human [health] language. Most people, when they train data analysts, they don't think about that model. You train them how to run codes and programs, not to explain the meaning of the results. That's not what we'll train for. We're going to train people to really understand."

Courses to achieve the necessary skillset include several in data science, informatics and Big Data intended for engineers, and the students also will participate in a student-driven seminar series in order to propose and present research before peers and mentors, as well as required lab rotations both in veterinary medicine and human health. The sextet also will have to develop their own Big Data analytics tools and complete an individually-tailored set of courses based on their previous educational backgrounds and future career aspirations.

They'll have plenty of data to work from. The MU Informatics Institute hosts the extensive vet medicine database from the University of Illinois and a data set from Cerner Health that includes data from more than 47 million patients.

"Our training is for problem understanding, cleaning the data set, processing the data set and interpreting an actionable plan for clinicians," Shyu said.

From an engineering perspective, Shyu said the NIH grant (Grant No. 1T32LM012410-01) and new program is validation of the several years of effort put into making MU a world-class institution in the area of Big Data and informatics. It also reflects on the unique resources available at MU, which offers the rare combination of engineering, health and veterinary medicine all on the same campus.

"We have had this informatics program since 2008, and we built a good track record to show that in the last eight years, we've produced many Ph.D. students, and many are tenure-track faculty members somewhere," Shyu said. "We have done all the grunt work. It wasn't like we got this grant here overnight."


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