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New Faculty Friday: Robert McDougal, informatician, neuroscientist, computer whiz

October 18, 2019
by Colin Poitras

The Yale School of Public Health proudly welcomes 13 new tenure track faculty this academic year. These individuals bring a broad range of research, scholarship, and teaching expertise to the school and will be instrumental in helping us address many of the public health challenges of the 21st century.

Today we spotlight, Robert McDougal, assistant professor in the Health Informatics Division of the Department of Biostatistics. McDougal has a Ph.D. (2011) and M.S. (2006) in mathematics from Ohio State University. He also holds an M.S. in computational biology and bioinformatics from Yale (2015). McDougal did his postdoctoral training in computer science, neurobiology and medical informatics at Yale. From 2016 until this year, McDougal was an associate research scientist in the Department of Neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine. He is affiliated with the computational biology and bioinformatics graduate program, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics, and the Center for Biomedical Data Science.

Q: Describe your primary academic focus or research specialty?

RM: I am an informatician developing and applying computational strategies for gaining insight into the nervous system in health and disease. The dynamics that underlie brain activity occur across a vast range of spatial and temporal scales -- from conformational changes that occur locally in a fraction of a millisecond to the patterns of connectivity across the brain over our lifetime. My work seeks strategies for efficiently inferring information across this vast range of scales; for example, I have used this to study the role of ion regulation during working memory tasks. I have developed approaches for extracting structural information from computational models and am working on approaches to automatically compare them to each other and to the literature to gain new insights on how details of neural structure affect processing.

Q: What are your long-term goals in public health?

RM: Neurological diseases are one of the great public health challenges of our time, especially as our population continues to age. By some estimates, starting at some point in a person’s 60s, the risk of developing dementia doubles about once every five years. Unfortunately, we do not understand enough about the brain currently to successfully reduce the risk or slow the progression of such diseases. In the long run, I want my computational work to enable discoveries that go beyond theory to actionable, practical findings that can help address these types of challenges.

Q: How will the resources available at the Yale School of Public Health help you achieve your goals?

RM: YSPH offers a fabulous environment for doing research. My colleagues here have a tremendous amount of experience in connecting the theoretical/mathematical side of their work with the practical needs of the world, and I look forward to learning from them how to better help the broader community. The computing resources here are great, and will allow me to use large, distributed models in my research. I am also especially excited about YSPH’s new Health Informatics M.S. program. I am teaching a course for that program this year and preparing for this has been extremely helpful in encouraging me to think deeply about what it means to do informatics and how informatics can have a broader, more powerful impact on the world.

Q: Tell us something about yourself away from public health (E.g., hobbies, interests, pursuits, etc.)?

RM: My parents got me a computer in 1982 when I was in fourth grade, and I used that for many, many years. Even then, it was an old machine. With a few exceptions, I could not find new software for it. If I wanted to do something on it, I had to figure out how to program it; I think this helped inspire me to love learning, and definitely to love learning new things about computers. I toyed with WebGL via Three.js in the past, but I have recently seen a bunch of really cool virtual reality demos, so now I want to learn more about how to do interactive 3D graphics.

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on October 18, 2019