Q: Where is the Department of Biomedical Informatics?
A: The Department of Biomedical Informatics administrative offices are located in the
Annette and Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library (EBL), a unit of Vanderbilt University Medical
Center's Informatics Center. The EBL provides access to materials to support the patient care,
healthcare education, and biomedical research missions of Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Detailed directions may be found here and our location
on the Vanderbilt campus may be found here.
Q: What is Biomedical Informatics?
A: Briefly stated, Biomedical Informatics is the interdisciplinary science that deals with biomedical information,
its structure, acquisition and use. "Biomedical" is used here in its broadest sense, to include research,
education, and service in health-related basic sciences, clinical disciplines, and health care administration.
Biomedical informatics is grounded in the principles of computer science, information science, cognitive science,
social science, and engineering, as well as the clinical and basic sciences. Biomedical informatics encompasses a
spectrum similar in scope to the sequence from mathematics to physics to engineering. It includes scientific
endeavors ranging from theoretical model construction to the building and evaluation of applied systems.
A more detailed description of Biomedical Informatics can be found here.
Q: I want to pursue formal training in Biomedical Informatics but I do not know how to program a computer. What should I do?
A. Coding (i.e., computer programming) skills in a standard high-level language is an indispensable tool for
biomedical informatics specialists. Although it is probably true that most biomedical informatics professionals
will not do their own software development, the ability to program is crucial because (a) it facilitates a
deeper understanding of the characteristics and function of important systems, algorithms and representations,
(b) it enables quick prototyping of novel ideas, and (c) allows more efficient and effective interaction with
scientific programmers and applications developers.
Moreover, knowledge of a programming language per se does not amount to significant programming ability. It
is the deeper understanding of and the ability to efficiently implement (as well as to analyze and modify or
expand) major data structures and algorithms that makes someone a good programmer.
Although there are programs of study in biomedical informatics that underemphasize (or in some cases do not require
at all) sound coding abilities, we would not advise the prospective student to shy away from this important
component of a professional biomedical informatician's training.
Since our program involves advanced study of general and special-algorithms at the graduate level, we require
all students to have sufficient coding skills upon entrance in the program to be able to succeed in their courses.
Q: What should I do to develop coding skills?
A. Take an undergraduate-level introductory course in computer programming. Then take an undergraduate-level
data structures and algorithms course. Practice implementing complex algorithms and structures as much as possible,
especially in the context of a real-life project (ideally, under the guidance of an experienced mentor).
Q: I have an MS in a related field. Can I directly proceed to PhD candidacy?
A. Although an MS in a related field is certainly advantageous for a career in biomedical informatics,
you will still need to take the special core courses, and complete the minimum 27 credits as required by
university rules. Since any prior work you have done can be justification of a waiver for similar courses
(subject to faculty approval), this will give you the opportunity to increase the depth and breadth of your education.
Q: Why do you require that all students take a core course in Bioinformatics?
A. We believe that bioinformatics will change the face of medicine (just like antibiotics, or effective anesthesia
changed medicine several decades ago). Consequently, the biomedical scientist of the future will have to have a solid
foundation of the principles, issues, and methods of bioinformatics -- irrespective of particular focus.
Q: Why do you require that all students get a MS before pursuing the PhD?
A. Research in this field proceeds in longer cycles than typical biomedical sciences. That is, instead of many
small experiments that eventually converge to a common theme, the biomedical informatics researcher conducts methods,
systems development and evaluations that last for several months or years. It is not uncommon for a PhD project to
consist of development and evaluation of small portions only of a system. The requirement for a MS guarantees that
PhD students will have the opportunity to complete at least two major cycles of research (a cycle being the sequence:
hypothesis -> research design -> system design -> implementation -> evaluation -> report). Furthermore, PhD students
under this model will not undertake their PhD thesis research without the benefit of substantial prior research experience.
Q: What do you mean by "candidates should possess strong technical skills"?
A. Substantial familiarity with coding (see above), mathematical and
statistical concepts (including probability, hypothesis testing, calculus).
Q: What does "rigorous training" mean?
A. In the context of our program it means in depth, technical (as opposed to high-level),
solidly grounded on theory, and intensive education.
Q: What is the meaning of integration in Biomedical Informatics?
A. "Integration" in the context of interdisciplinary science means the effective linkage of scientific knowledge
(methods and other results) from fields of science that do not have as broad communication channels among them
as normally found within each individual discipline.
A first step towards integration in this context is acquiring knowledge in the individual disciplines.
A second step is learning how knowledge discovered in one field, was in the past applied in another
field, or how knowledge from various fields was combined to solve problems at the intersection of fields.
The third and final step involves applying (as well as extending, modifying, and adapting) such cross-disciplinary
knowledge to explore novel scientific hypotheses.
Acquiring knowledge about computer science, mathematical techniques, and biomedical science within the program
corresponds to step #1 as delineated above. Studying the five core courses corresponds to step #2. And
conducting original research putting to use skills developed in the first two steps, under the guidance
of faculty experienced in interdisciplinary research, corresponds to step #3.
Q: I want to study Biomedical Informatics because I like computers
A. Computers are invaluable tools in biomedical informatics. Although it is tempting to define biomedical informatics
as the study of applications of computers in medicine, this is like saying that astronomy is the study of applications
of telescopes in the sky!
In reality, just as the telescope is an important tool for studying the celestial bodies (the true focus of astronomy),
the computer is an important tool for studying and devising methods for discovering, storing, retrieving, analyzing,
synthesizing biomedical data, information and knowledge (the true focus of biomedical informatics).
To understand this even better consider that biomedical informatics includes exceptionally influential work that
does not involve a computer at all. Such work includes the study of human clinical problem-solving, research on
improving diagnosis and therapy, the analysis of clinicians' information needs, and methods that embody the
evidence-based practice framework.
Q: I know HTML and Java (or C++, or Perl, etc.). I also know Unix (or Windows, or MacOS, etc.). Do I really need to get a formal degree?
A. Programming skill, computer literacy, and a basic knowledge of medicine are necessary but insufficient tools
for the vast majority of people interested in Biomedical Informatics. Methods from mathematics, computer science,
information science, operations research, decision theory, statistics, and research design are incredibly valuable
and virtually indispensable throughout your professional career. A sound formal program of study will also teach
you advanced learning skills, research skills, writing, presentation, and help develop many more professional
qualities. Perhaps most importantly, it will give you a deep understanding of the solved and open problems in
the field, how they relate to each other and the rest of biomedicine, and how you can become an independent and
successful biomedical informatics professional.
Q: Two years for a MS and five years for a PhD seem an awfully long period of time.
Leadership in a technically complex and interdisciplinary field such as biomedical informatics requires a
broad and deep understanding of the intersecting disciplines (biomedicine, computer and information sciences)
and the characteristics of their intersection. Our program does not aspire to simply enhance the informatics
skills of students, or produce sub-specialists, but to provide them with the knowledge base and research skills
required to become the future leaders in the field. The core and selective courses represent what is considered by our faculty
to be a solid theoretical foundation of knowledge in biomedical informatics. Removal of any of this and any other
material from the program curriculum just to expedite graduation would not serve our students in the long run nor
would it help attracting the best students.
Q: Can you tell me more about graduate student life in Nashville?
Vanderbilt University is situated in the vibrant and progressive city of Nashville, TN, also affectionately known as
"Music City USA" or "the Athens of the South." The University offers the diversity and excitement of living in a
moderately large city combined with the safety of the suburbs. The medical campus, adjacent to the undergraduate
campus and other professional schools, is only 10 minutes from the cultural and entertainment attractions of downtown
Nashville and the scenic riverfront of the Cumberland River. For more information
Q: Can you tell me more about Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the School of Medicine?
Vanderbiltís long tradition of research and graduate education dates back to the late 19th century, when the
university granted, in 1879, its first M.A. degrees (in English, Greek and Latin) and its first Ph.D. degree
(in Chemistry). As of today, nearly 18,000 students have earned graduate degrees from Vanderbilt in nearly 70
fields and specialties. Vanderbiltís Ph.D. alumni can be found pursuing careers in every direction imaginable,
including in the commercial sector, in government service and on the faculties of small colleges and major research
universities. The recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Yunus, received his Ph.D. (in Economics) from
Vanderbilt in 1971.
During the last few years, Vanderbilt has committed nearly $100 million of new institutional funding to
the establishment of a number of new research programs, centers and institutes, all of which support the scholarly
activities of faculty and students. Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and Vanderbilt School of Medicine
have a longstanding reputation for excellence in research. This reputation is based largely on the quality of
published work, success in securing extramural support, and the quality of graduate and postdoctoral training programs.
From 2000-2004, VUMC became the fastest growing academic medical center in NIH-funded research in the US, with a
compound annual growth in NIH funding of 20.4%. Despite slowing in HHS budget growth, VUMC achieved a continued growth
rate in sponsored research of 10.3% in 2005. The Department of Medicine has experienced the highest percentage growth
in NIH funding over the past five years and is ranked 6th in NIH funding. There are seven basic science
departments (including DBMI) and twenty clinical departments in the School of Medicine. Four of the basic science
departments are listed in the top ten in the nation based on federal research dollars from the NIH, and another is
ranked in the top twenty.