Alum Philip Payne Takes DBMI’s Model for Success to the Heartland

When Washington University in St. Louis, MO, decided it was time to launch its brand-new Institute for Informatics, it looked to Columbia alum Philip Payne to lead the way. Payne, PhD, the then-chair of The Ohio State University’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, was selected in March after a committee searched the nation. He accepted the challenge and kicked off his post as the institute’s inaugural director July 1.

Payne, who is a graduate of Columbia’s Department of Biomedical Informatics—earning his MA in 2003 and his PhD four years later—says he’s excited to bring the value of his DBMI experience to St. Louis, as he did to Columbus.

“[A]t Ohio State, the way we built our [programs] by and large was informed by that experience at DBMI. … [T]here was an awful lot of similarities, because we knew that it was a successful model,” Payne says. “I’d like to think that one of the reasons that I was asked to take this role on is that both at Ohio State and now here at Wash U., the expectation is that we find a way to recreate some of those very same successes. It’s a program that other universities want to emulate.”

Of the many successes other institutions seek to emulate, DBMI’s commitment to interdisciplinary studies may be most significant. DBMI’s “cross-cutting” approach, Payne says, is visible in its many partnerships with the greater scientific community, from medical centers like New York Presbyterian to government agencies like the New York Department of Health to industry like IBM. It’s an approach Payne hopes to make the core of Washington University’s Institute for Informatics. “What I learned about being an interdisciplinary scientist was directly a reflection of what I experienced and saw when I was at DBMI,” he says.

The goal at the Institute for Informatics, Payne says, is to make the discipline a campus-wide effort, connecting informatics not only with the hard sciences but also with the social sciences and the arts. Payne believes this collaboration has the potential to pay off in big ways, with Washington University taking on some of today’s most urgent healthcare challenges, and making an impact. This includes figuring out how to speed up clinical trials, how to instrument the healthcare delivery system to make it a rapid learning environment, and how to manage population health.

Ultimately, Payne’s mission at Washington University—and biomedical informatics’ mission in general—is to put medical data to better use. Making sense of information facilitates decision-making that is truly data based, in effect raising our healthcare system’s IQ. To this end, the Institute for Informatics aims to launch its master’s program for the 2017-18 academic year, and its doctoral program for 2019-20.

Payne sees relationship building at the root of all of these efforts. Without collaborative connections, he says, science can easily get stuck. But by opening up and sharing data, establishing complementary initiatives, and iterating off of others’ efforts, stakeholders can more efficiently innovate and advance science.

“We can’t just keep doing the same old silo-ed research,” Payne says, “where one investigator discovers something interesting and then they report on it in a paper but they never tell anyone about how they arrived at that conclusion, and then the next investigators have to replicate that work and then do their own work. We have to be able to get to the point where the science is cumulative, where we can build on each other’s successes.”

Payne credits a lot of his own success to the network he built at Columbia DBMI. Through shared experience, he says, Columbia DBMI students foster strong ties with both their peers and the faculty, forming a cooperative spirit and relationships that remain with them for the rest of their careers. “It’s almost like a family,” Payne says. In fact, in at least one case, there was no “almost” about it—one of Payne’s peers quite literally did become family. Tara Borlawsky, was studying at DBMI in the early 2000s when she met fellow student Payne. Today, they’re married. Borlawsky, who graduated with a Master’s in 2004, works at the health systems services provider Lumeris.

Another of Payne’s long-lasting relationships is Albert Lai, PhD, who graduated from Columbia DBMI the same year as Payne and later worked at OSU with him. It didn’t take long for Payne to tap Lai from OSU, bringing him onboard at Washington University’s new Institute for Informatics. Payne says that Lai, who will begin his position in September, is only the first of what he hopes will be many DBMI grads to join Washington University’s School of Medicine under his watch. It goes to show that DBMI, as one of the longest-running programs of its kind in the world, continues to set the standard in bioinformatics education.