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Dr. May Dongmei Wang: On the Importance of Data Analysis for Solving Medical Challenges

In recent years, the volume of biomedical data generated is a dense, rich source of clinical and biological information that could potentially save lives. However, analyzing the data to reach important conclusions is a sizable technical challenge. This becomes apparent for those involved in the field of translational medicine. Professionals in this field work to develop methods and tools to analyze and extract meaningful information from extremely large biomedical datasets, ultimately accelerating and assisting the development of tools, systems, and cures that save lives.

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Dr. Wang at her bio-informatics and bio-imaging lab.
(Photo: David A. Van)

Dr. May Dongmei Wang, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, investigates technical challenges associated with data analysis at Georgia Tech as the Principle Investigator of the Bio-Medical Informatics and Bio-Imaging Laboratory (Bio-MIBLab). She has been deemed the Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar and the Director of Biocomputing and Bioinformatics Core at Emory-Georgia Tech Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence.

Her research aims to develop tools and methods to extract meaningful information from large biomedical datasets to assist and accelerate patient care. The Bio-MIBLab focuses on five sub categories of Biomedical and Health Informatics (BHI) research: mining high throughput next generation sequencing and –omic (e.g. proteomics, metabolomics) data for personalized medicine; analyzing molecular imaging data with clinical decision support system for next-generation pathology; predictive modeling for therapeutics; integrating heterogeneous data from cancer biology and bio-nanotechnology for oncology; and tracking continuous mobile health data for prevention and chronic care. These areas are part of a translational pipeline that takes a clinical problem such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, or chronic condition in patients, and uses a robust feedback process to ultimately reach a solution. Large volumes of data in the form of genomic sequences, image or video are normalized and processed using novel data analysis techniques tailored to deal with the high dimensional data. Once the desired information such as diagnostic biomarkers and chronic health patterns are obtained, this knowledge is validated and built into portable personal health tracking or clinical decision support systems for preventive care and personalized medicine.

Overall, Wang is extremely enthusiastic about bringing her research to the clinic, and the future of biomedical engineering for the students of the Coulter Department at Georgia Tech. “I came back from industry because I love to work with students”, Wang says with excitement. She is proud of the undergraduate students whom have conducted biomedical and health informatics research in her lab. These students’ first-authored peer-reviewed publications and won national awards (e.g. Goldwater, Hertz Fellowship, NSF graduate fellowships). Wang also stresses the importance and need to increase BHI training for younger generation of biomedical researchers and health professionals. As a part of her initiative to train more students to be able to employ the tools of information science, Wang plans on offering an introductory graduate course in BHI. On how students should approach their academic and engineering careers, Wang thinks that they should focus not only on receiving a degree, but on problem solving, acquiring useful technical knowledge, and team working skills. She also stresses the importance of learning to accept failure and be resilient in the face of it. At the same time, she stresses, “be sharp: be very good at one thing, at least one thing [because] confidence is earned.” She continues, “You want to polish something you are so good at, and build upon that, make yourself stand so you become self-confident.”

As she reflects on her own path to becoming involved with Biomedical Engineering, Wang mentions that she has been incredibly fortunate to have been surrounded by excellent academic environments in both China and the United States and to have such role models as her parents and extremely supportive mentors and colleagues. “I was very lucky” she reminisces, describing how she had the opportunity to go to one of the best elementary, middle and high schools in China while having parents who were both researchers in The Chinese Academy of Sciences and put great value on education. “Going to college was never a question” she says”, the only question was which college and field of study she wished to apply to and pursue. Wang admits that having a career in academia and research had always been a natural choice. She initially had aspirations to go to medical school, but ended up following her parents’ footstep to attend Tsinghua University, the best engineering university in mainland China, known as “the MIT of China.” Wang further explains that joining Biomedical Engineering was driven by her own choice and urge to “make some contribution or innovation in saving lives.” She says that dealing with large volumes of data and in its various formats (text, speech, images, video and graphics) has always been a part of her career as an electrical engineer and computer scientist joining the Georgia Tech faculty.

Georgia Tech and Emory joint Biomedical Engineering Department has been a nurturing environment for her to fulfill her dream of making a real impact. Wang’s research is forward looking, cutting edge, and targeted and truly embodies the interdisciplinary and translational spirit of Biomedical Engineering. It plays a critical role in filling in the gaps imposed on researchers and clinicians due to the incredible size of modern biomedical and health data sets, and the lack of tools to make sense of it all. At the end of the day, Wang wants to save lives using the science of informatics. With her decision to work with her colleagues and students at Georgia Tech, Emory, CHOA, and Shepherd Center, she says, “looking back, I don’t regret a single day.”

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