Training Future Leaders in Informatics Research

For more than 20 years, the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHNCBC) has helped prepare future leaders in informatics research by providing internships and fellowships. The Medical Informatics Training Program (MITP) gives people from around the world the opportunity to spend from two months to three years at NLM, honing their research skills.

Paul Fontelo, MD, MPH directs the training program and says participants learn the scholarly way of planning and performing research, writing a research paper and getting it published. “It’s the discipline of becoming a scholar and researcher that’s most important,” he says.

More than 20 interns and fellows currently are in the program. They and their mentors recognize this is an exciting time in their field—the volume of data is huge, mobile technologies present new ways of sharing information, and electronic health records provide new research opportunities.

Headshot of Matthew Simpson, PhD

Matthew Simpson, PhD

Matthew Simpson, PhD, says he became interested in informatics and applications in the health care field while finishing his PhD. “It’s exciting because there’s so much information,” he says. “There’s the challenge of managing it, and the potential to impact public health.” Simpson works primarily on the LHNCBC project Openi, an experimental, multimedia search engine for retrieving images and text. “I get to collaborate with people in different branches so it’s exciting to see what other people are doing.”

Raymond Sarmiento, MD, calls biomedical informatics “a perfect blend,” because it allows him to use his medical background in new ways to help improve patient care. Before coming to NLM, he worked in database and information management, and coordinated research and development at the National Telehealth Center in the Philippines. He says he’s drawn to biomedical informatics to “deliver more efficient care, especially to people who are in geographically isolated or low-resource areas.” He’s interested in mobile health and evidence-based medicine, and wants to develop mobile applications.

After completing his PhD in Germany, Fellow Rainer Winnenburg, PhD, MSc wanted to study abroad. “It’s good to understand the different mentalities of the science here compared to in Europe,” Winnenburg explains. “It gives me a broader picture.” Dr. Winnenburg’s background is in computer science and biology. Before coming to NLM, he worked closely with scientists conducting research to find new medications and learn how things work in cells and in the body. “There’s so much data being produced nowadays that this doesn’t work without computer science techniques,” he says.

Dr. Winnenburg is part of the Medical Ontology Group, which conducts research on biomedical terminologies and their applications. Their goal is data interoperability. Now, he works with people involved in patient care and hospitals. He says he enjoys the diversity he’s experienced over the years. “What I find interesting is to actually interact with the group to find solutions for delivery of medical information.”

Participants in the medical informatics training program work on research projects under the guidance of LHNCBC staff and research investigators. Those projects evolve over time, driven by their mentors’ interests and new research discoveries. “Sometimes, it’s not always clear which direction some of these projects are headed,” Winnenberg says. “We collaborate, so we often meet regularly and ask questions like, ‘This is what we originally wanted to do, but this doesn’t work for these reasons so how can we change the plan?’ Then, three or four weeks later, a new plan or a new version is developed.”

Interns and fellows are encouraged to attend lectures, make presentations, write journal papers, present at professional conferences, and potentially publish in professional journals.

Dr. Fontelo says some of the fellows in the program have gone on to top jobs as chief medical information officers in large organizations and hospital systems and academic institutions here and abroad. “Working with young, talented people and seeing how they progress and become accomplished scientists is both challenging and rewarding.”

Bioinformatics Fellows at the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications

By Jason Williams, NLM in Focus contributor