DBMI’s First-Ever PhD Student Spreads the Informatics Gospel

“Just think about all the people playing Angry Birds. If we can get that kind of motivation for health care, we can make a difference,” says Columbia alum Justin Starren, PhD.

Sure, by and large, people are way less motivated to track their health stats than slingshot around rotund little birds, even if both activities are application-based. But Starren, who graduated from Columbia’s Department of Biomedical Informatics in 1997, hopes it won’t always be that way. And the field of informatics, he says, might hold the key.

Today, Starren is the chief of the Division of Preventative Medicine-Health and Biomedical Informatics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Prior, he was an associate professor at the school. Over the course of Starren’s nearly 20-year career in biomedical informatics, he’s worked to integrate the field into the American healthcare system.

Informatics is fundamentally changing our approach to health care, Starren says. From the way communities can be incentivized to take charge of their wellbeing outside of the doctor’s office to the way medical professionals can be armed with the right tools to best serve their patients inside of it, healthcare computing is just beginning to make its mark. And its Starren’s mission to ensure the outcome is a more effective, efficient and intuitive system.

At the heart of healthcare computing is recognizing what computers are good at—and learning how to take full advantage of that. Doctors, as humans with a limited capacity for processing, are not good at keeping track of huge amounts of patient data. But computers are. As Starren says, most medical errors are not failures of knowledge or judgment, but failures of attention. If healthcare professionals can harness informatics to enable the system to pay better attention, they can make better decisions.

Another application is in the development of drugs. “Everybody’s unique. We’re not all the same, but when we try to develop drugs we act like everybody’s the same,” Starren says. In the case of most drugs that get rejected during clinical trials, he points out, they actually work well for some sizable subset of the population.“So the idea is that, using the genetic information … we won’t give people drugs that don’t work on them [and] we can develop a lot more drugs that work for a subset of people and we’ll know who that subset is,” Starren says. “This absolutely can’t be done without computers.”

Starren credits the way he thinks about health care to his enrollment at Columbia DBMI, which he calls a “Camelot time” that has made him a proud “part of the Columbia mafia.” In other words, the program was life-changing.

Back in the early ‘90s, Starren was working, unhappily, in high-tech consultancy. In his words: “[I]n the consulting business, they wanted me in a suit running around talking to the boards of companies; they didn’t want me doing anything fun.” Around the same time, Starren discovered the field that would change his career: biomedical informatics.

Starren had never heard of informatics before, but he was intrigued. It wasn’t long before he’d enrolled at Columbia as the not-yet-launched department of biomedical informatics’ first-ever doctoral candidate. “Literally in the course of about 10 days, I went from a corporate consultant to being the first candidate for a degree that didn’t exist from a department that hadn’t been formed yet,” he remembers.

As the first PhD student of Columbia DBMI, Starren was its unofficial guinea pig—a role he was happy to fill. Without any peers for the first couple of years, he says, he had total access to an all-star set of advisors. “It was an absolutely amazing time to be there,” he says.

Being a mafia-in-training guinea pig taught Starren many lessons, which he says he tries to impart at Northwestern and will remember for the rest of his career. The most fundamental is, as he puts it, “the architecture is more important than the application.” Another is, “if you haven’t done something in the real world, you haven’t done it.” He talks about the importance of DBMI’s emphasis on hands-on training, teamwork and intellectual agility.

These principles shape the way Starren models Feinberg’s data sciences center. “My goal here is to reproduce my Columbia experience for the next generation,” he says. “My entire view of how to do informatics was totally shaped by that program.”