Training for Lifelong Learning

brighly colored lines emerge from a single point in the distance

To say biomedical informatics is a rapidly changing field might be an understatement. Or a truism. Probably both.

Given its interdisciplinary nature and the myriad ways each of those disciplines is changing, it’s no wonder. From advances in molecular biology to the gigantic leaps we’re making in artificial intelligence and pattern recognition, the fields that feed in to biomedical informatics are speeding forward, so we shouldn’t be surprised they’re driving biomedical informatics forward as well.

Dr. George Hripcsak’s post from last week made this point in the context of biomedical informatics training. Our trainees must be prepared to master what will likely be a never-ending series of new topics and skills, and our training programs must evolve to keep up with them. And while we can’t anticipate every twist or turn, we can prepare our trainees for the road ahead by giving them the skills to navigate change.

NLM is trying to do that.

NLM supports university-based training in biomedical informatics and data science at 16 institutions around the country. That translates into over 200 trainees supported annually.

While the university programs share common elements, in the end each is unique.  They vary in focus, with some emphasizing the informatics related to biological phenomena and others addressing clinical informatics. They also require different levels of course work. But in general, both pre- and postdoctoral trainees in these programs attend classes, participate in research projects, and are mentored to become independent researchers, earning a PhD or a Master’s degree upon completion.

Annually, the predoctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and the faculty from the 16 university programs NLM supports get together for a two-day meeting. It’s both an honored tradition and a much-valued component of the training process—kind of a networking event crossed with an extended family reunion. In a good way.

The meeting gives trainees the opportunity to develop career-shaping networks, learn about different concentrations in biomedical informatics, and, perhaps most importantly, present posters and podium talks that both hone their scientific communications skills and promote their research. Meanwhile, the training directors and faculty get together to share best practices, discuss curriculum, and offer NLM guidance regarding future training directions and support.

This year’s training meeting—hosted just last week by Vanderbilt University—emerged for the first time from the trainees and fellows themselves.  That is, the Vanderbilt students planned the meeting (with a bit of guidance from their faculty). This shift put the meeting’s structure and content in the hands of those most likely to benefit from them—but also most likely to know what they and their colleagues need to hear.

The outcome exceeded expectations.

The opening student-only social event kicked things off, and the pace never relented. In a good way.

Podium presentations of completed research joined poster presentations of works in progress, 3-3 lightening talks (three slides, three minutes), and small group “birds of a feather” discussions around themes such as interoperability, user experience, and curation.

Regardless of what was happening though, conversations abounded. The social mixing that sometimes took a full day to occur was evident in the first few hours, making those rooms loud! In a good way.

Clearly, peer-directed learning involves a lot of conversation.

When I had the chance to address the group, I pointed out how all that conversation paralleled the careers that lie before them. That is, in such a rapidly changing field, never-ending curiosity and unrelenting inquiry are absolutely essential. Trainees and fellows must be prepared for an ever-changing world and embrace the idea that their current training programs are launch pads, not tool belts. Content mastery will get them only so far.

To respect the public investment in their careers, they must always learn, always question, always engage.

They can’t rush it. Or consider it done. Careers take a lifetime.

And NLM is committed to preparing them for that lifetime of contribution and discovery. After all, those working in a field that is ever-changing must be ever-changing themselves. In a good way.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine