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New department head will boost ASU's leadership in biomedical informatics

August 20, 2007

Dr. Robert Greenes is bringing experience gained during almost four decades at Harvard University to help lead Arizona State University’s Department of Biomedical Informatics.

He will be the Ira A. Fulton Chair of the new department in the School of Computing and Informatics, a part of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. He also will be a professor of biomedical informatics.

The department is co-located at ASU’s main campus in Tempe and in the Arizona Biomedical Collaborative 1 building on the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus, home to the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in Partnership with Arizona State University.

Greenes is leaving posts as professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Informatics at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he also has been a professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health.

He also has been a professor in the Health Science and Technology Division, a joint division of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and program director of the Boston Biomedical Informatics Training Program, which is supported in part by the National Library of Medicine.

The decision to come to Arizona despite a prominent position in the Harvard medical community was influenced in part by “the substantial planning efforts and resources already devoted to ASU’s biomedical informatics program,” Greenes says.

“I’m impressed by the eagerness at all levels of the university, especially its leadership, and among its partners, the University of Arizona, and other area health and biomedical science institutions, to create a top-notch biomedical informatics program, ” he says. “And there’s the opportunity to help shape the program from the beginning.”

“Having someone of Dr. Greenes’ caliber will help ASU quickly move to the leading edge of biomedical informatics,” ASU President Michael Crow says. “He will offer strong direction for the department to provide its students an outstanding education and also to contribute to improving health care in Arizona.” 

University Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth D. Capaldi says Greenes brings “the deep knowledge of his field as well as the administrative skills to take on the challenge of establishing a first-rate program.”

“Bob Greenes is an outstanding leader in the national bioinformatics community. We are delighted that he will be the new leader of our biomedical informatics department” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the School of Computing and Informatics.

“He has the energy, vision and commitment to work with our partners to build a top-ranked biomedical informatics department that will realize the vision of President Crow,” Panchanathan says. “We are grateful to Interim Chair Vimla Patel for her leadership in building the academic programs and attracting excellent faculty. Dr. Patel will continue to help advance the department in her new role as the vice chair of education and training.”

Dr. Jeffrey Trent, president and scientific director of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, says he considers Greenes “without question among the world leaders in the use of collaborative medical informatics research to benefit patients, physicians and students.”
The timing of Greenes’ appointment “is perfect for Arizona,” he says. “It will strengthen our position in medical education, medical information management, and patient-centered research. He is a wonderful addition to the developing patchwork of renowned biomedical scientists being recruited to Arizona.”

Greenes will head a department focused on research and teaching in a fast-emerging field experts foresee making a significant impact on advances in medical care. It integrates information science and technology, computer science, engineering, biology, mathematics and health sciences to develop systems to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of medical training, research, diagnosis and treatment.

Biomedical informatics deals with “the core of knowledge underlying all the fields of medical research and practice,” Greenes explains, “both in terms of discovering the knowledge and using the knowledge to advance those fields.”

As an analogy, he says, “Think of informatics as a knowledge framework that underlies all the systems that make your house function as a good place to live. It’s about the understanding of how all of those systems work and why they work, in order to be able to design and build functional and desirable houses.”

Applied to medicine, it provides data systems, prediction models and problem-solving methods “that help physicians make well-grounded decisions,” he says. Those data also are used to build tools, such as software programs, for acquiring and applying new knowledge.

Greenes says the department is poised to make rapid strides in establishing research groups to delve into all aspects of biomedical informatics. His confidence in making rapid progress is bolstered by the talents of his colleagues in the department.

Department vice chair Vimla Patel (who has been interim chair for the past six months) came to ASU earlier this year from Columbia University in New York, where she was a professor of biomedical informatics and psychiatry. She is a former professor of medicine and psychology and director of the Centre for Medical Education, at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Patel is transferring her Center for Decision Making and Cognition to ASU’s biomedical informatics program from Columbia University.

The faculty also includes Dr. Edward Shortliffe, who is founding dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in Partnership with Arizona State University, and who earlier this year received a lifetime achievement award from the American College of Medical Informatics. 

Greenes’ credentials include an M.D. degree as well as a Ph. D. in applied mathematics and computer science, both from Harvard. He is a certified in diagnostic radiology and did his residency in the field at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He also has been a radiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In 1978, Greenes established the Decision Systems Group, a Harvard-based biomedical informatics research and development laboratory at the hospital.

He has served as director of the group.

He is a fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics as well as its past president, a fellow of the American College of Radiology and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He serves on the editorial boards of several medical information and management journals.

Writer: Joe Kullman