Meet the NLM Investigators: Dr. Michael Chiang is Working to Eliminate Vision Loss

Soon after he planned for a career as an engineer, Michael F. Chiang, MD, the Director of the NIH National Eye Institute (NEI) and an Adjunct Investigator for our NLM Intramural Research Program, found that his interest in machines could be applied to medicine and help treat people with disease.

So Dr. Chiang switched his focus (if you will!) to vision science and made a career as a pediatric ophthalmologist and board-certified clinical informaticist before joining NIH as Director of NEI in November 2020. His research centers around the interface of biomedical informatics and clinical ophthalmology, with special interests in telehealth and electronic health records, artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and genotype-phenotype correlation.

At NEI, he leads a talented group of people who are also dedicated to eliminating vision loss through research. Their efforts have resulted in new therapies and new technologies, including an assistive AI system for retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, which is a leading cause of childhood blindness worldwide.

Research focus areas for Dr. Michael Chiang, Director, National Eye Institute and Adjunct NLM Investigator

Dr. Chiang is also passionate about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). Recently, he talked about his efforts in his “Meet the Director” interview with NIH MedlinePlus Magazine, including how he made DEIA a cornerstone of NEI through a new mission statement that now includes an objective to “improve quality of life.” He also developed the latest NEI strategic plan to include four main points that will support the institute in meeting its mission:

  • Drive innovative research to, among other things, expand opportunities for people who are blind or require vision rehabilitation
  • Foster collaboration to develop new ideas and share knowledge across other fields
  • Recruit, inspire, and train a talented and diverse new generation of individuals in vision research
  • Educate health care providers, scientists, policymakers, and the public about the impact of vision research on health and quality of life

With his efforts, NEI is cultivating an environment that actively promotes gender diversity and ending structural racism not just at NEI, but across the National Institutes of Health.

Now let’s turn to Dr. Chiang: Learn more about the person behind the research and see what he has to say!

What is your advice for young scientists or people interested in pursuing a career in research?

Find good mentors—they can influence your career trajectory (and life trajectory) enormously. Along those lines: Find people whose work is interesting to you, read about their work, write to them, and try to meet with them at conferences (or via Zoom). This can be a great way to meet mentors, collaborators, and friends.

What do you enjoy about working as an Adjunct Investigator at NLM?

NLM is an incredible environment where so much biomedical informatics work with worldwide impact has been done (PubMed/MEDLINE, MeSH, UMLS…). Now informatics and big data are more important to biomedical research than ever before, and I’m excited for all the innovations to come from NLM!

What’s your hometown, and where is your favorite place to travel?

I consider Detroit my hometown. I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but my family moved to Michigan when I was very young because my father worked at Ford Motor Company.

My favorite place to travel is Brazil. I’ve been there three times (including with my family), and we know some great people there.

What are you reading right now?

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. A good friend sent it to me because I write so many letters of recommendation!

What inspires you?

At the beginning of my career, I learned that Paul Clayton had a mantra of finding colleagues who are “nice, bright, and hard-working.” In the 20 years since then, I haven’t come up with a better mantra. So what inspires me most is meeting young people who are nice, bright, and hard-working.

When you’re not in the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

Mostly spending time with family. My two daughters were very involved in sports (both were high school All-State athletes!), so I’ve spent—and still spend—a lot of time watching on the sidelines or practicing with them.

You’ve read his words, and now you can hear him for yourself! Follow our NLM YouTube page for more exciting content from the NLM staff that makes it all possible. If you’d like to learn more about our IRP program, view job opportunities, and explore research highlights, I invite you to explore our recently redesigned NLM IRP webpage.

Transcript: [Chiang]* I’m an ophthalmologist by background, and I actually started my career in 2001 at Columbia University as an NLM postdoctoral fellow. And since then, I’ve spent 20 years in academia as a clinician scientist working at the interface of ophthalmology and biomedical informatics.

In November 2020, I started a new job at NIH as director of the National Eye Institute. And I’m really excited to be an investigator here at the National Library of Medicine because you know, in a way, it’s what I started my career doing.

At the National Eye Institute, our mission is to eliminate vision loss and improve quality of life through vision research, and that’s an application domain. And at the National Library of Medicine, what we do is methodological research in biomedical informatics and data science. And I think it’s really important to connect the methodology with the application.

One of the things that I do is develop artificial intelligence methods to diagnose a pediatric retinal disease called retinopathy of prematurity. It’s one of the leading causes of blindness in babies around the world.

Stevie Wonder is someone who went blind from ROP in the 1950s before there was a treatment for it.

And we’ve developed an AI system that received FDA breakthrough status. And one of the things that we’ve been doing is trying to find ways to apply AI to real world problems in eye care for kids.

Babies who are premature, and therefore at risk for retinopathy of prematurity, come disproportionately from urban and rural medically underserved areas. And there are huge challenges in terms of delivering eye care and health care overall to those babies.

And so, one of the things that I did at the very beginning of my career is work to develop and validate telemedicine systems for retinopathy prematurity diagnosis.

And now what we’re starting to do is to experiment with – can we implement AI (artificial intelligence) into those telemedicine systems to be able to improve the accuracy and the quality of the diagnosis that we’re able to make remotely.

There’s never been a time in history where we’ve had so much access to science and technology as being applied to health care. And I think one of the challenges for the future is – how to move things like biomedical informatics and artificial intelligence and data science into the mainstream of health care.

@NLM_NIH is an incredible environment where biomedical informatics work with worldwide impact has been done. Informatics and big data are more important to biomedical research than ever before, and I’m excited for all the innovations to come!

*Transcript edited for clarity.

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