Meet the Masters: Julia O’Rourke, MS, PhD, MMSc ’12

A series spotlighting Harvard Biomedical Informatics Alumni
Julia O'Rourke

Today we feature Julia O’Rourke, MS, PhD, MMSc, who graduated in 2012.

What did you do before attending Harvard Medical School?

I was a graduate student at Tufts Biomedical Engineering department, and I also studied Computer Science at UMASS Boston. Professionally, I was working as a bioinformatics specialist and a research project manager at the Center for Human Genomic Medicine at MGH. As a team member of the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit, under direction of Dr. David Pauls, I helped develop information and analytics databases for the Autism Consortium, the Tourette Syndrome International Consortium for Genetics, and the International OCD Foundation Genetics Collaborative. My research was focused on understanding comorbidity of Tourette Syndrome and ADHD.

What are you doing now?

After graduating with the degree in Biomedical Informatics, I accepted a position as a faculty member at the Lurie Center for Autism at the Mass General Hospital for Children and Harvard Medical School. The Lurie Center for Autism is a multidisciplinary clinic focusing on care for children and adults with autism. The director of the Lurie Center, Dr. Christopher McDougle, is an exceptional physician and a clinical researcher. Dr. McDougle also mentors junior researchers and encourages collaboration, so I work with clinicians and clinical researchers on several clinically important projects such as trying to understand the link between autoimmune diseases in parents and autism in their children, and how to use information technology to improve care coordination for children with autism.

How is the degree in Biomedical Informatics helping you?

The degree in Biomedical Informatics provided me with an understanding of the complexities when introducing innovative information technology and analytics in healthcare and how Biomedical Informatics fits into the healthcare system. For instance, take a problem of lack of communication among care team members of children with autism. Prior to studying Biomedical Informatics, I would have naively thought that developing an informatics tool would allow care team members to share information. However, technology is usually the easiest barrier to overcome, unlike provider reimbursement, privacy issues, and other regulations.

Why did you choose this program?

The program at Harvard Medical School integrated several leading hospitals and universities. This diversity helped me find courses, mentors and collaborators that fit my research interests.

What do you think makes this program unique?

During this program, I attended classes at the Harvard School of Public Health and conducted research at the Laboratory of Computer Science at MGH. For my thesis, I was able to work with the software engineering team, and programmed user interface screens within an existing patient portal system that collected health information from parents of children with autism prior to their medical visit. This was a great experience because I was able to work with software engineers and clinicians to develop a patient facing tool, write a research protocol and conduct a pilot clinical trial. The combination of didactical work, taught by the leaders in the field, hands on programming, and working with clinicians and conducting clinical research, was a complete experience that prepared me for both academia and industry.

What was your most memorable experience while in the program?

Dr. David Bates taught a phenomenal class on Biomedical Informatics where he gave an overview of different organizations, policies, and committees involved in this field. These lectures opened my eyes on the complexity of Biomedical Informatics initiatives with respect to policy, technology, behavioral science as well as healthcare delivery and reimbursement systems.

How did the environment at Harvard Medical School enrich your training?

The learning environment at HMS encouraged students to work together. It was great because everyone brought something special to the group: everyone had a different research or medical specialty and were interested in different aspects of Biomedical Informatics training. This diversity was supported by academic and research faculty that resulted in all of us pursuing our interest and enriching each other's knowledge.

How will your experience at Harvard Medical School help your future goals?

I am working on a feasibility study evaluating how collaborative care model can improve care coordination for children with autism. It took several years to receive funding for this project, including multiple grant submissions. My experience at HMS prepared me to academic career; I learned how to prepare grants to funding agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, how to design clinical trials, and research protocols.

Edited by Sydney Narvaez