New Associate Dean for Research Named for the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics

Published March 01, 2013 by Sarah Kelly


Elmer Bernstam, MD, MSEHOUSTON - (March 1, 2013) –  Elmer Bernstam, MD, MSE, professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Biomedical Informatics is the new associate dean for research.

“Dr. Bernstam is not only an established independent researcher who has excellent track records in funding and publications but also a collaborative researcher who has led large-scale projects across schools and institutions,” said Jiajie Zhang, PhD, SBMI dean and the former SBMI associate dean for research. “He is a nationally recognized leader in translational and research informatics. As a practicing physician, Dr. Bernstam is highly familiar with the health care challenges that require informatics solutions, and he is well positioned to help our efforts in applied informatics in clinical operations.”

Bernstam’s goals to improve research at SBMI include internal and external synergy. One goal is to have school researchers from different focus areas collaborate more often.  For example, one group at SBMI is merging clinical informatics with natural language processing to better understand clinical documents like electronic health records. These distinct areas of expertise can be leveraged across multiple biomedical informatics areas.

Secondly, Bernstam would like to increase collaboration with other centers in the Texas Medical Center. One specific center that he mentioned was the MD Anderson Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy.

“The IPCT has multiple challenges that can be addressed by biomedical informatics research,” said Bernstam. “One question they may ask is: What drug therapy should be given to patients based on their molecular profile? This question poses significant informatics challenges including bioinformatics, information retrieval, knowledge representation, user interface design and others.

“Centers such as these could benefit from a collaborative relationship with the school. SBMI, in turn, will benefit from addressing ‘driving biological problems’ posed by clinical and biological researchers.”

Bernstam started with the school as an assistant professor in 2001 and quickly moved up the ranks to become a professor in 2010. He received his medical degree from The University of Michigan Medical School in 1995 and finished an internal medicine residency in 1998, followed by a Master’s in Computer Engineering from The University of Michigan and a National Library of Medicine fellowship in biomedical informatics at Stanford in 2001.

His research focuses on biomedical information retrieval, consumer informatics, decision support and translational biomedical informatics. Bernstam has served as principal investigator on grants from The National Library of Medicine, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NASA. He also serves as the Director of Informatics for the UTHealth Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

“My lab is focused on making sense of clinical data. We created and maintain the UTHealth clinical data warehouse, which contains clinical data for more than 400,000 patients,” said Bernstam. “Using the clinical data for research is challenging, but we are working on ways to identify patients with specific conditions, who received particular treatments or had outcomes of interest.

“The warehouse has been particularly useful to SBMI faculty and researchers outside of the school who need access to the data for their research or during the grant-writing process.”

Bernstam also plans to expand bioinformatics research—informatics applied to biological data—at SBMI.  He hopes the arrival of new faculty member Jim Zheng, PhD, and adjunct faculty member Jeff Chang will fuel new bioinformatics research at the school.

We need to focus on a few key areas where we have strengths or where we can realize opportunities,” said Bernstam. “The dean has identified strong areas of research that SBMI will expand, including clinical/translational informatics, cognitive informatics and applied clinical informatics. From the research perspective, these are very synergistic.  

“For instance, work in applied clinical informatics can help us get access to clinical data and clinical systems that will be useful for research.”

Zhang, who served as the associate dean for research from 2002-2012, is excited to see what the future brings for SBMI’s research efforts.

“Biomedical informatics and health information technology are driving a revolution in health care with the potential to change the game of biomedical discovery and greatly increase quality of care, patient safety and efficient care delivery,” said Zhang. “A major responsibility of the associate dean for research is to lead the school’s effort in identifying and seizing emerging opportunities in basic research funding and informatics applications. I am confident that Dr. Bernstam will lead the school’s research enterprise to the next level.”