Health care reform aims to shift America’s medical instincts away from “reactive” acute care (e.g., Alice waits until she is sick and then seeks expensive treatment) to “preventive” care (e.g., Alice and her medical team work on living healthy so that she avoids what could be prevented). But prevention requires prediction — the ability to know what dangers await Alice and which ones can be averted.
Making such predictions for Alice requires a lot of data, not only about her, but also about basic human biology and the circumstances and health of lots of people similar to her. That data also must be packaged for and presented to her clinicians (with her consent) in a way that they will find useful and effective. This complex fusion of information technology and medicine is a field called “biomedical informatics.” It promises so many opportunities to improve health that the Alpert Medical School is now setting up a center to advance it. Newly hired Neil Sarkar, assistant professor of medical science, will be its first director.
“What’s exciting here is we can develop a model for preventing or predicting whether someone will go down a path of disease,” Sarkar said. “If we’ve got an innovation, let’s implement it, and let’s see if it makes a difference.”
Rhode Island strikes Sarkar as a particularly good place to do this work, because its major hospital systems are affiliated with Brown and have largely coalesced around implementing electronic health records systems that promise compatibility.
“We want the new Center for Biomedical Informatics to become a epicenter for next-generation informatics research and really capitalize on the unique opportunity we have in Rhode Island as well as the unique relationships the University has with the hospitals,” Sarkar said. “The timing is just right. If we can’t do it here then the rest of the country is in deep trouble.”
Sarkar comes to Brown from the University of Vermont where for the last six years he has been director of biomedical informatics at the Center for Clinical and Translational Science. There he conducted research on the deep evolutionary history of an Alzheimer’s disease-associated gene, developed a patent-pending system for abstracting data from medical records, developed new courses on biomedical informatics, and edited a textbook on foundational methods in the field.
But it was something of a curricular quirk in his undergraduate days at Michigan State University that helped lead him down this career path. He was a pre-med microbiology student in a science-focused residential education program called Lyman Briggs. There, students could fulfill the university’s elective requirements by studying a programming language that included the development of applications for either the biological or physical sciences. He studied FORTRAN and C++ and applied them to his major.
“I really got really interested in programming in the context of biology,” he said.
That hybrid interest (and an adviser’s guidance) led him straight to the field of biomedical informatics. After graduating from Michigan State in 1999, he enrolled at Columbia University where he went on to earn a master’s and then a Ph.D. in the field (that’s also where he met his wife, Elizabeth Chen, who worked with him at Vermont and is now associate director of the new center at Brown).
Sarkar’s early research interests centered on analyzing the reams of data in basic biology — not only human genetics but also those of plants and animals. Between Columbia and Vermont, he held research positions at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod.
He still has that original passion for biology (he has a grant from the National Institutes of Health focused on studying medicinal plants), but at the center in Vermont and in the new center at Brown, the challenge is to cover the whole continuum from basic biology through medical practice to public health. All of those matter to the goal of integrating all the data — and developing the clinical tools — needed to understand how to maintain Alice, and everyone else, in good health.