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Building a Program at the Intersection of Computer Science and Medicine: Meet Lucila Ohno-Machado

March 10, 2023
by Isabella Backman

Biology and medicine are increasingly driven by data, says Lucila Ohno-Machado, MD, MBA, PhD. The large amounts of data that academic medical centers now accumulate and generate have become essential to research and patient care. Organizing and interpreting these data, and using them to build predictive models, she says, requires a strong knowledge of biomedical informatics.

Ohno-Machado recently joined Yale School of Medicine to build a new department aimed at advancing the use of biomedical informatics and data science through collaboration with other units at Yale. She arrived in January as Waldemar von Zedtwitz Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Informatics and Data Science; deputy dean for biomedical informatics; and chair of the new Section of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science. She is looking forward to creating a program that not only provides a quality education and sets a foundation for groundbreaking research, but also serves the community and addresses health equity issues.

“Our mission is to use data and computation to promote the health of all individuals and enable others in healthcare to make more data-driven decisions,” she says.

Pursuing Two Passions Around the World

Ohno-Machado grew up in Brazil, where high school graduates go straight to medical school, engineering school, or another program. “You essentially have to choose your profession right away,” she says.

This posed a challenge to Ohno-Machado, who was interested in both medicine and computer science. So she decided to pursue both. She would do her six years of medical school and then enroll in a computer science program. “School is where I feel the most comfortable,” she says.

The impact will be long-lasting. This is one more time in my life when the opportunity knocked, and I answered.

Lucila Ohno-Machado, MD, MBA, PhD

After she graduated from medical school at the University of São Paulo, her university established a medical informatics residency, and she became one of the school’s first residents in this specialty. However, the options for doing informatics in Brazil were limited. So she did a master’s in health administration with a focus in IT and then began applying for graduate programs in medical informatics worldwide. This stage in her journey brought her to the United States, where she obtained a PhD in medical informatics from Stanford University. “It was exciting, scary, and a dream come true,” she says of moving to the United States. “I came from an environment that was so resource-limited to one that seemed so abundant.”

After Stanford, she got her first job in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where she worked for 13 years and served as affiliate faculty at MIT. But then one day in her office, the phone rang. It was someone from the University of California, San Diego, asking if she knew of anyonee who would be interested in creating a new program. This piqued her interest. She had inherited the program she then ran but had never created one herself. “I had the opportunity to build a program from scratch the way I wanted to,” she says. So, she once again moved to the other side of the country to San Diego. There she built programs in collaboration with colleagues in the U.S., Brazil and Mozambique. “It was one of the most productive and exhausting times in my career,” she reflects. “But exhausting in a good way.”

Now, Ohno-Machado is back on the east coast. When asked why she wanted to do another cross-country move, she says, “So I can do it all over again!”

Building Biomedical Informatics and Data Science at Yale

Ohno-Machado plans to build Yale’s new Section of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science by bringing together researchers with a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, including in medicine, life sciences, computer science, physics, and other quantitative disciplines. Her team will work very closely with Yale’s health care system to organize data in a way that is accessible not only to those in biomedical informatics, but to others outside the department as well, while preserving individual privacy. The section also has a strong educational mission of training the next generation of biomedical informaticists and medical students in building artificial intelligence models, evaluating them, and translating them into practice. She says, “There is nothing more gratifying then seeing someone graduate and thinking ‘this is a future leader; I am lucky I had the opportunity to play a small role in their education.’”

Within biomedical informatics, she is most passionate about the challenge of building models that generate individualized predictions or estimates for different people. In the past, small datasets limited machine-learning analyses. But now, access to larger amounts of data and greater computational capacity create the potential for building informative models. “I get excited about these models because they can help offer more precise treatment of patients. Biomedical informatics is an essential component of precision medicine,” she says.

Furthermore, these predictive models can help researchers tackle health equity issues. First, she says, these models can quantify unequal treatment and outcomes of underserved groups. And more important, through the collection of more representative data, they can inform researchers on how to remedy these inequities.

On her commute to Yale alone, she sees stark disparities across Connecticut neighborhoods. She hopes the work conducted through her new program will help elevate underserved communities. “Through informatics, we can not only uncover the health disparities that exist in our community, but also work towards mitigating and ultimately eliminating them,” she says. “I’m excited about working together with those involved in community engagement and health equity to try and bring the research back to the community.”

Ohno-Machado is especially enthusiastic about being at Yale for two reasons. First, she says, Yale has solid foundations she can build from, with highly collaborative colleagues who share her values. Second, she looks forward to building on her experiences in Boston and San Diego to start the next chapter in her career. “The creation of a new department doesn’t happen all the time. This will be an important landmark for our field of biomedical informatics and data science, and to how we can use data science to support more equitable biomedical research and health care. I know I can do an even better job this time here at Yale, and the impact will be long-lasting,” she says. “This is one more time in my life when the opportunity knocked, and I answered.”

Submitted by Robert Forman on March 10, 2023