P&S Journal: Winter 1996, Vol.16, No.1
P&Students: Student Mixes Medicine with Informatics
By Lynne Christensen
All through his college career Robert Cargilehas pushed traditional boundaries in order to satisfy his diverse academic interests. As an undergraduate biomedical engineering student at Tulane University he persuaded the administration to allow him to spend his junior year in Germany. At the time it was unprecedented for a student to learn engineering in a non-English-speaking country; now it is an option routinely offered.
At Columbia, he is a pioneer once more. Mr. Cargile is the first P&S student to enroll in the new Department of Medical Informatics. Rather than graduate with the class of 1997, Mr. Cargile will take a one-year detour through medical informatics to earn a master's degree before graduating in 1998.
"I just finished my second year of medical school, and this is the logical breaking point for me to do this because it's the transition from the lecture hall to the wards," he says. His additional year in the lecture hall environment will enable him to study database systems and computer graphics and participate in one or two project offerings, including the development of hand-held computing devices for use in health care settings and the transition of plain-film radiology to the digital age.
Medical informatics became a department in June 1994, having grown out of a postdoctoral training program. Offered through Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, medical informatics offers Ph.D. and M.A. degrees. This year, five students are on the Ph.D. track and five on the M.A. track. One student anticipates receiving a Ph.D. this year.
"We would like to encourage more medical students to enroll and perhaps develop a combined degree program similar to the M.D.-Ph.D.," says Dr. Stephen Johnson, director of the graduate program.
Medical informatics is a growing field that studies the form and function of information in medicine. Mr. Cargile defines medical informatics as "the science of establishing the most efficient way to acquire, store, and retrieve large amounts of seemingly disjointed information. Data structures are an extremely important aspect of it, because specific data points are often meaningless if taken out of context." His interest is based partly on his undergraduate training in biomedical engineering and his three years as an engineer in a German hospital.
"I had considered getting a master's degree in either electrical engineering or computer science before going to medical school, but I decided that the most important thing for me was to become a physician," he says. The medical informatics program has given him the opportunity to pursue his technical interests within the context of medicine.
With plans for a career as a neurosurgeon, he feels his training in informatics will be valuable because of the potential for computer applications in neurosurgery. He cites the work of Dr. Robert Goodman, assistant professor of neurological surgery, who has established a database of radiology images and text that surgeons can access from the operating room. Mr. Cargile is also inspired by the work of Dr. Michael Sisti, assistant professor of clinical neurological surgery, who performs stereotactic neurosurgery. "Procedures like stereotactic neurosurgery that require specific pinpointing of lesions are an amalgam of computer science and sophisticated imaging techniques."
As a lieutenant in the Navy, Mr. Cargile must serve an operational tour of two years after his first year of residency. The Navy granted Mr. Cargile a one-year leave of absence from his commitment to complete the medical informatics program. "They don't usually grant these," says Mr. Cargile, "but because my participation in the program is ultimately beneficial to the Navy, they decided to make an exception."
Formerly an avid sport diver, Mr. Cargile plans to attend diving medical officer school, which includes advanced instruction in diving, radiation physics and safety, and hyperbaric medicine.
"I have a diverse set of interests and have always had a hard time combining them into a logical academic program," he says.