A Letter from Kim Unertl, Director of the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program (VBISP) 

Hi everyone,

As we wrap up the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program (VBISP) for summer 2021, it’s hard to believe how fast the past 10 weeks have gone by!
This year’s group of students has done some impressive work in that brief amount of time, and their group design challenge presentations and individual final presentations really showed the effort they’ve all put into getting the most out of their research experience.
Although I’m hoping this will be our final summer of being in a virtual format, I am so proud of how the students and their mentors took on the challenge of working remotely and managed to produce such interesting work. I look forward to seeing where each of this year’s accomplished group of students heads next!
– Kim Unertl, PhD, MS, FACMI, Director of the VBISP and Graduate Studies, Associate Professor in DBMI

Table of Contents

  1. A Message from VBISP Teaching Assistants, Michelle Gomez and Alex Becker 
  2. VBISP Spotlights: Natalie Thomas, Eli Bradley, Olivia Lindberg, Liane Vásquez-Weber, Ananda Turner, Emily Warren, Sara Saif, Eve Vazquez

A Message from the VBISP Teaching Assistants

"I would like to commend this year’s group of students for their commitment and hard work throughout the summer program." 

– Michelle Gomez

"This summer’s interns demonstrated their willingness to learn through thoughtful questions. I appreciated how honest each student was in their pursuit of improvement and am proud of everyone’s individual progress.
As we approach the end of the summer program and individual presentations commence, I am excited to learn about the student’s discoveries!"

"As a first-year teaching assistant for VBISP, I could not have asked for a better group of interns." 

– Alex Becker

"Despite the challenging conditions that stem from completing a virtual internship, these students were incredibly communicative, collaborative, and creative.
A highlight of mine was watching their design challenge ideas go from rough concept to general outline to full-fledged proposal and presentation. It was a pleasure working with such high-caliber students and I’m excited to learn about their individual research projects."

VBISP Spotlight: Natalie Thomas

Natalie Thomas is from Atlanta, Georgia, and she is currently studying biomedical engineering and pre-medicine at Vanderbilt University.
Growing up, she became highly interested in math and science. By high school, she decided that becoming a physician would be her goal.
Pictured left: Natalie Thomas.  
But her inspiration to pursue medicine came from observing the hardships her family members endured due to various illnesses. 
“Seeing them struggle with medications made me feel like I wanted to help,” she explains. “And I would be the first doctor in my family.”
Pictured right: Natalie with her family.
Natalie got her first thrill in the medical field after shadowing a dermatologist during the summer after her freshman year of college. She observed first-hand the way physicians and patients interacted with one another, as well as minor invasive surgeries such as cyst removals.
At the VBISP, Natalie has been working with Wael Alrifai, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Biomedical Informatics, on a project titled “Characterizing Provider Workload in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.”
“This project has provided an immersive experience of the field of biomedical informatics and what it involves,” says Natalie. “We have examined electronic health record (EHR) data to find provider patterns and relationships between workload and other factors.”
“Natalie probed EHR access logs for their workload prediction potential and represented clinicians' workload disparity,” says Dr. Alrifai. “Her work showed organization, consistency, and commitment.”
Natalie adds: “I want to come away with more experience in biomedical informatics, more professional growth and more knowledge on how I can use the latter for practicing medicine and seeing more of the importance of patient information and how physicians use that information.”

Using her experience at VBISP, Natalie hopes to find ways to improve health care in terms of accessibility and physician-patient relationships, especially in communities of color.
Pictured right: Natalie in Girl Scouts.
“There’s still a disconnect in more urban communities,” she explains. “The availability of health care is limited, especially in certain areas. In the future, as a physician, I want to work on advancing relationships between patients and physicians, as well as increasing availability and awareness of health care in those communities.” 

VBISP Spotlight: Eli Bradley

Eli Bradley is a Nashville native who studies biochemistry at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He is also minoring in music and developed a new interest in jazz and classical music. His favorite instruments to play are the pipe organ and keyboard.
Eli had a range of career interests when he started college, including mathematical modeling. He later opted to pursue biochemistry because the job opportunities seemed more appealing. He also considered becoming a chemist, but his college advisor recommended that his interest in programming and his high academic scores in biology and chemistry made him an ideal candidate for medical school – a path which he’s currently following.
Wanting to gain experience in informatics, Eli searched for informatics programs across the country. He chose the VBISP because of its prestige and “it was close to [his] house,” Eli says with a laugh.
Since joining the VBISP, Eli has been working with Wei-Qi Wei, MD, PhD, FAMIA, Assistant Professor in DBMI, and Juan Zhao, PhD, Research Assistant Professor in DBMI, on analyzing EHR databases and creating codes to visualize the data.
“It’s been great, they’ve been really helpful,” Eli says. “I knew basic programming but I’m starting to do things that I wouldn’t have thought I would be able to do just by teaching myself. I’ve been taking codes and making my own package! That’s been really encouraging for me to see that I can teach myself things if I put my mind to it.”
Pictured right: Dr. Wei. 
“Eli joined my lab this summer and worked on creating a standardized visualization pipeline that can quickly demonstrate key information for large EHRs,” says Dr. Wei. “He was a quick learner, was able to jump into a new field very quickly, and was a pleasure to work with. He listened well and took an active role in our discussions. I have complete confidence that he will succeed in whatever ventures he embarks on.”
“This is important to know our EHR data better,” adds Dr. Zhao. “Eli is energetic and dedicated to learning and practicing new concepts and tools. He is logical and has excellent communication skills. I enjoyed mentoring and working with Eli this summer. I look forward to seeing his accomplishments.”
Pictured left: Dr. Zhao.
“My experience at the VBISP has been really good and I enjoy how friendly and casual people are here!” Eli says.
After graduating college, he plans to take a year off and apply for MD/PhD programs and complete his first triathlon! 

VBISP Spotlight: Olivia Lindberg

Olivia Lindberg is from Holden, Massachusetts, an hour outside of Boston. She attends Pennsylvania State University, where she is majoring in biostatistics. Outside of research, Olivia is a big fan of snowboarding and skiing!
She didn’t find her passion for science and math until she took AP statistics in high school. She later took a statistics course in college, which was challenging but gratifying. 
“It was machine-learning based,” she says. “It was daunting at first, but when I finished, I was surprised at myself and felt accomplished.”
Pictured below: Olivia enjoying some snowboarding. 
Olivia came upon the VBISP after her scholar's program encouraged her and her classmates to look into Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs).
Vanderbilt’s program stood out because it “seemed like the perfect fit” for what she was looking for: the VBISP is an REU program that mixes both biology and math, and she could use her knowledge and experience in biostatistics.
In the VBISP, Olivia has been assisting Jeremy Warner, MD, MS, FAMIA, Associate Professor in Medicine and DBMI, with author network data to observe mentor-mentee relationships in cancer clinical research settings.
“The internship has been so much fun and I’ve really enjoyed working with my mentor!” Olivia says. “It was a really amazing experience and I love the department here at Vanderbilt.”
“Olivia delved into the world of social network analysis, where the social network are mentors, mentees, and collaborators in a clinical trial network,” says Dr. Warner. “She developed temporal images to depict the travels of persons within each other’s spheres of influence, which will lead to a more systematic analysis of more than 20,000 clinical trialists.”
After she graduates, Olivia plans to obtain her doctorate, potentially in biostatistics, bioinformatics, or public health. 

VBISP Spotlight: Liane Vásquez-Weber

Liane (pronounced “lee-aw-nee”) Vásquez-Weber (she/her) currently attends Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
In elementary school, Liane was drawn to science and math, but by high school, she became interested in arts and culture. In college, she meshed the two interests together by majoring in computer science and minoring in biology and English.
Liane chose computer science as a career path because of its use of analytical thinking. “I liked making a big problem into smaller problems,” she explains. Pictured right: Liane, 2021. 
She also discovered that computer science could be used in health care to assist patients. “I decided to stay in computer science because it can be service-oriented," she says. These threads of service and intellectual curiosity are paths she continues to develop and seek new opportunities for.
Pictured above: Liane with her siblings. 
Wanting to gain more experience in computational biology, Liane came upon the VBSIP online in spring 2019 and was immediately intrigued but did not apply until later. In fall 2020, she reached out to Carlos F. Lopez, PhD, Assistant Professor in Biochemistry and DBMI, for a school project after reading a publication of his.
“I needed to do a virtual career interview with someone in my future career for a communications course in college,” Liane explains. “He was doing computational biology and I interviewed him for an hour, instead of the required 15 minutes!” The two stayed connected until she formally applied to the VBISP in spring 2021. He then became her VBISP mentor.
Pictured right: Dr. Lopez. 
During her internship, Liane worked on a project with Michael Irvin, PhD, who is also in Dr. Lopez’s lab. Their goal was to create the beginnings of a computer model to explore the hidden mechanisms of cell death, with particular focus on the BCL-2 protein family. Her project title was “Computer Modeling of Cell Death Dynamics: Encoding BCL-2 Family Protein Interactions.”
Some of her results included multiple new rules being encoded to describe this complex biological system of cell death, as well as a preliminary figure. Liane looks forward to applying the hands-on experience she acquired from translating published literature to biological rules to future projects as well.
“I was impressed with Liane’s enthusiasm and persistence!” Dr. Lopez says. “She absorbed an incredible amount of knowledge in a very short time!”
Liane plans to pursue a PhD in the fields of either biomedical data science or computational systems biology.
Pictured left: Liane with her mother and grandmother.
Regarding her goals outside the research lab, Liane said:
“I enjoy research as an act of service, and especially love serving people face-to-face, whether that be in hospice volunteering, teaching confirmation classes or spearheading a new volunteer front to clean up an abandoned property to increase community pride and unity! In short, my purpose is to be a part of improving the human condition through research and volunteer work. I look forward to staying in contact!”

VBISP Spotlight: Ananda Turner

Ananda Turner was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently studying biology at Hampton University, a private, historically black college or university (HBCU) known for its research, in Virginia.
As a child, Ananda enjoyed spending time in nature and exploring the woods in upstate New York. “That is how I formed an emotional connection with different types of life, which also made me curious about other life forms,” he explains.
“I also spent a lot of time thinking about the existential side of life. There was a time I was thinking about all of the different things that make up my body, like organs and hormones and their relationships to each other, and the fact that I could even be conscious enough to think about all of that made me realize how weird it was!”
While in college, Ananda became interested in the technological side of health care, including informatics. After expressing this interest to his college advisor, she recommended he apply to the VBISP.
Pictured right: Ananda in his high school band. 
Throughout his internship, Ananda has been researching maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY), a rare disease that is often misdiagnosed, partly because of the challenge with finding clinical information on MODY patients.
Under the mentorship of Lina Sulieman, PhD, Assistant Professor in DBMI, Ananda is working on training a machine learning algorithm to classify clinical notes under certain categories that describe MODY-related note content, including diagnosis and genetic testing results. Pictured below: Dr. Sulieman. 
“Hopefully, this will reduce the frequency of misdiagnosis and help build a cohort of MODY diagnosed patients for future research,” Ananda says. 
He adds: “I have enjoyed working with Dr. Sulieman. She is very good at describing concepts clearly and she makes the research more interesting by explaining the many possible applications of machine learning beyond the focus of this project.”
“Ananda is a bright, young man and a quick learner,” Dr. Sulieman says. “He showed commitment and enthusiasm to learn informatics tools and performed an analysis outside his field of study within a short time.”
He is thankful for his experience in the VBISP and with DBMI faculty and staff. “Not all research settings are welcoming, so I appreciate this program for creating a space where I feel comfortable building my skills and knowledge in informatics,” he says. 
While Ananda has not completely decided what he plans to do following graduation, especially since taking classes virtually during the ongoing pandemic has made it “difficult to have a sense of direction,” he says that he plans to take a year off and potentially pursue a higher degree.
Pictured right: Ananda with his family. 
“The VBISP has made me more curious about biomedical informatics as a potential profession,” he says. 

VBISP Spotlight: Emily Warren

Emily Warren is currently studying biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When she began college as a biomedical engineering major, she considered pursuing medical school after completing undergrad. However, after becoming more involved with biomedical research, she decided that obtaining a doctorate in biomedical engineering was her true path.
“I enjoy contributing to the advancement of health and improving the development of health care research,” Emily says.
Pictured left: Emily, 2021. 
In college, she researched Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (VEDS), a rare genetic disease that causes arteries and hollow organs to become more prone to tearing due to a gene mutation.
“People with VEDS are only diagnosed after a complication or serious event occurs,” Emily explains. “I’m trying to understand how this mutation changes the organs mechanically and contribute to finding a way to diagnose and treat it earlier, instead of just treating the side effects.”
Pictured right: Emily in front of the Mary Ellen Jones Biomedical Engineering Building at UNC, 2019. 
Emily’s passion for biomedical research led her to the VBISP. Throughout her internship, Emily has been working with Kim Unertl, PhD, MS, FACMI, Director of the VBISP, Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in DBMI, on women’s health applications and usability.

“Emily continued the work that I started a few summers ago with a team of students, focusing on the design of currently-available menstrual tracking apps,” says Dr. Unertl. “She quickly identified an area that she was interested in, which was symptom tracking, and used her skills to come up with novel approaches to analyzing the data she collected.” 

VBISP Spotlight: Sara Saif 

Sara Saif is a Nashville native studying pharmacy at Belmont University.
She gravitated towards pharmacy because it's a field that helps people using chemistry, one of her favorite subjects.
During college, one of her professors recommended that she apply to the VBISP as a summer internship. “I liked the fact that it was more informatics-based, something I’ve never done research in before," she says.
During her internship, Sara has been working under the mentorship of Jeremy Warner, MD, MS, FAMIA, Associate Professor in Medicine and DBMI, on a project that classifies oncology regimens.
“Sara dug deep into the byzantine world of chemotherapy regimen variants, seeking to categorize and organize more than 14,000 of them,” Dr. Warner says. “She also began the process of validating an algorithm based on DNA sequence alignment to capture the repeating elements that make up a regimen from raw electronic medical record data.”
“It was surprising to see that there are some studies that have multiple types of medication regimens,” Sara says.
After graduating, Sara plans to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate in informatics or other related science field. She is grateful for her experience in the VBISP. “It was really fun and interesting, and it pened my eyes about biomedical informatics!” 

VBISP Spotlight: Eve Vazquez 

Eve Vazquez is from Orlando, Florida. She began studying human factors psychology at Valencia College in Orlando and will continue her studies this fall at the University of Central Florida.
Eve became interested in psychology after completing a cognitive psychology research project at Valencia.
Pictured right: Eve.
Hoping to gain more experience in the field, she searched for REU programs that utilized human factors psychology research, which is the interaction between people and technology. “That’s what I want to do for my career,” Eve explains. “The VBISP was a good introduction into that work.”
The best program that she could find online was the VBISP. After applying to the VBISP, Eve soon interviewed with and began working under Laurie Novak, PhD, MHSA, FAMIA, Assistant Professor in DBMI, and Shilo Anders, PhD, Research Associate Professor in Anesthesiology, Biomedical Informatics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the Center for Research and Innovation in Systems Safety. 
Eve’s project seeks to identify and understand the roles, activities and tools and technologies involved in patient care in a head and neck cancer clinic. Her project is part of a larger research lab at Vanderbilt, the Cancer Patient Safety Learning Lab (CapSLL). The goal of Eve’s project is to develop an understanding of the cancer patient care system, which will help inform the design of risk prediction software that CapSLL is creating.
“Eve spent much of her summer learning about cancer care,” says Dr. Novak. “She analyzed qualitative data and developed innovative maps documenting the role networks of the various clinical personnel and the patient and caregiver. Her work provides us with a foundation for future work in automating and enhancing outpatient cancer care. Eve has a bright future in human factors!”
Pictured right: Dr. Novak. 
She has also been working under the mentorship of Megan Salwei, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow in DBMI. 
“This summer, Eve undertook a complex analysis of the head and neck cancer clinic,” says Dr. Salwei. “She was able to quickly learn several new softwares to analyze and visually present our data in the form of a role network. The work she conducted will be extremely valuable to our project going forward!”
Pictured left: Dr. Salwei. 
“I was so happy and excited that I was given this opportunity,” Eve says. “Vanderbilt is an amazing school and all the people I’ve interacted with are great.”
After graduating college, Eve hopes to go on to pursue a master’s degree in human factors psychology.

Congrats to the VBISP students on completing the program!

Have questions about the summer program or the VBISP students? Let us know by emailing Kim Unertl at kim.unertl@vanderbilt.edu and Rischelle Jenkins at rischelle.jenkins@vanderbilt.edu.

Suggestions? Email dbmicomms@vumc.org.