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Department of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science

The Department of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science (DBIDS) recently became the 28th academic department of the Heersink School of Medicine, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

We spoke with Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Chair of the DBIDS, James Cimino, MD, to gather his perspective on the transition from an institute to a department, as well his visions for the department's future.Cimino James 11 2022 crop


Q: How does it feel to now be the Department of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science (DBIDS), the 28th academic department of the Heersink School of Medicine here at UAB? How does it feel to be the Chair of this new department?

A: It’s great to finally be a department here at UAB. A great deal of work has gone into this transition, and I am grateful to all of the people who have helped make it happen. The current state of the world presents biomedical informatics and data sciences with new opportunities, such as advancements in artificial intelligence, genomic-based learning health systems, responding to pandemics, enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in research, education and health care. Our department is going to lead the next wave of informatics advancement by developing and applying tools and techniques to solve problems faced by researchers, practitioners and patients, while training the next generation of informatics researchers.


Q: What are some of the overall goals of this new department?

A: One of our primary goals is to recruit highly skilled faculty specializing in various fields, including: clinical informatics, bioinformatics, data science, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. I see our department serving as the professional home and intellectual community for informaticians and data scientists across UAB, stimulating the cross-fertilization that is at the origin of biomedical informatics as a field. Within this department, we are aiming to develop our own educational programs that will assist in placing UAB on the map as a leader in biomedical informatics.


Q: Discuss from your perspective the evolution you have seen within this department, from its inception as an institute in 2015 to what it has become now.

A: Our timing of natural transition from an institute to a department follows a pattern seen at many universities that have established an informatics institute or center. We started with a small core faculty, most of whom were just beginning to establish their research, and now have mature programs with staff and trainees. The next step is to increase our depth in areas where we are now working and filling gaps in expertise and experience with new faculty.


Q: With the ever-changing landscape of health science, how important was it in your mind to transition to a department? What are some of the opportunities that you believe will arise from being a department.

A: As a department, we can now compete more successfully for large grants that involve informatics core resources. Currently, we have opportunities within translational bioinformatics, clinical research informatics, and clinical informatics that will only help to expand and grow our department. The Systems Pharmacology Artificial Intelligence Research Center (SPARC), established under Dr. Jake Chen, will focus on developing new AI-based approaches in informatics, data science, and clinical trials across multiple fields, including genomics, precision health, and medicine, while accelerating drug discoveries to address various clinical conditions. The Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS) provides a living laboratory for us to study and address the informatics needs of researchers across the translational spectrum. We are establishing a learning health system laboratory that looks to reinvent electronic health records as tools that actively support improvement and maintenance of human health.


Q: UAB has always been at the forefront of innovative change. How do you feel that this department will contribute to that in its own way?

A: We have been fortunate enough in our previous work the opportunity to be at the forefront of some major initiatives, such as being the informatics leads for large multi-institution projects (Alabama Genome Health Initiative and Southern All of Us), and contributing to others (the eMERGE consortium, National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C), and Bridge2AI), developing U-BRITE and the UAB Foundational Ontology (UFO), as well as establishing and enhancing an i2b2 data repository of electronic health record data. I’m confident that our transition will create greater opportunities for our department to be at the center of research and application of biomedical informatics and data science.


Q: What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges that come with being a new department?

A: Informatics, whether we are aware of it or not, affects us in various ways these days. We still have a long way to go in understanding not only how to meet information needs but what, exactly, those needs are, Informatics research seeks to answer those questions to develop new theories, methods and tools. trainees succeed in their own endeavors.


Q: In the next three to five years, what are your visions for how this department will look?

A: We would like to be able to recruit faculty that will be part of a larger community of scholars that can collaborate, complement and support their research and teaching activities. We are aiming to become a globally recognized biomedical research department. I would like our work here at DBIDS to be instrumental in applying innovative methods from our research that further help to understand human health, while simultaneously improving patient outcomes.