Chirag Patel: Online Inspiration

Master's Degree, Biomedical Informatics

He's forward-thinking and future-focused. Translating information into knowledge, he works to find better understanding of multifactorial diseases and ways to prevent them. His journey is part of the medical science of tomorrow, and it started with an online course at Stanford.

"The faculty I learned from online were the ones I worked with in my PhD program."

  • ​PhD in Biomedical Informatics, Stanford University
  • MS in Biomedical Informatics, Stanford University
  • BS in Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Assistant Professor of Biomedical Informatics, Harvard University
  • Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University
  • Software Engineer, Applied Biosystems
  • Data Analyst, DNA Sciences

How did you first get interested in biomedical informatics?

When I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology, I spent a lot of time in the wet-lab trying to get experiments to work. I wanted a change of scene and a different kind of ‘classroom’ experience so I tried a computer science course. I found the constraints of developing a computer program that had a fixed input and fixed output to be the perfect contrast from the randomness of biology and the wet-lab. 

This was also when the Human Genome Project was starting to ramp up and companies in the biotechnology field were looking for people who worked in computer programming because they had massive amounts of data points to process. So, I pursued a job as a software engineer at Applied Biosystems.

What made you decide to pursue your graduate education with Stanford?

I was searching online for master’s degrees and saw that Stanford programs in subjects like artificial intelligence and machine learning were being offered at companies like Agilent and Oracle. I checked with Applied Biosystems and learned it was a member company of the Stanford Center for Professional Development. The opportunity to earn my master’s degree with Stanford, while continuing to work full-time, sounded like a great opportunity.

What was one of the most interesting lessons you learned while pursuing your MS in Biomedical Informatics?

Something that was eye-opening for me was that there were few differences between studying remotely and on campus. Being an online student, I thought I’d just plug in, take a class, and my skill sets would improve, but all the other things that you think of when you go back to school were factored in – having to do research, submitting your homework on time, and working in group projects.

How did you engage with other online students and faculty?

A lot of courses were project-based so you had to team up to get them done. We would meet using online channels like instant messenger or email, and sometimes we would meet on campus. Once I realized this was a field I wanted to make my career, I started going to faculty office hours to understand the material required to take next steps for the PhD program.

Which faculty and courses made an impact on your education?

The continuity between the MS/PhD programs was ideal. The faculty I learned from online were the ones I worked with in the PhD program. Russ Altman, Mark Musen and Atul Butte were all influential on my education.

The online course Translational Bioinformatics was my inspiration for pursuing PhD level academics and the work I’m doing today. Butte taught it, at the time, and he ended up being a mentor for my dissertation. 

Where do you see the field of biomedical informatics in the next 10 years?

We’re going to get to a point where individuals and researchers alike are going to have access to troves of data. Understanding the genetic variations we inherit will become common practice. Eventually that will evolve into having information on how different environments affect the genome and impose benefits (or risks) to our health.

All of this data combined and analyzed on a personal level holds a lot of potential for shaping medical decision-making and creating successful treatments and prevention.