Jessie Tenenbaum, PhD – Making Data Personal

A CTSA Profile

July 28, 2015

Jessie Tenenbaum was designing cell phone user interfaces in the late 90s when she heard a radio story about the Human Genome project. She was caught by the idea that innovative technologies were causing a paradigm shift in biology, turning it into a data-centric pursuit and creating new opportunities for people who preferred programming to pipetting. “I remember thinking ‘they are going to need a whole lot of people to work with all that information,” says Tenenbaum. Here, in her own words, are Tenenbaum’s musings on how she has navigated this new field of biomedical informatics and how it has influenced her – personally and professionally.  


How did you end up in the field of bioinformatics?

When I was in college, bioinformatics didn’t exist. I was a biology undergrad but I was not excited about advanced biology. I happened to see a course on computer programming and thought it was cool. When I graduated I worked at Microsoft for a while, designing cell phone interfaces, and one day I heard an NPR show about the human genome project and I thought “they are going to need a whole lot of people to work with all that information.” I investigated the field and ended up going to Stanford to get my PhD in Biomedical Informatics.


How did you end up at Duke?

I followed my boyfriend, now my husband, to North Carolina about eight years ago. I was lucky enough to find a position with the Duke Translational Research Institute that allowed me to stay close to the science while leveraging the project management skills I had developed while at Microsoft. Between national CTSA consortium projects and helping to create the informatics infrastructure needed to run the MURDOCK study in Kannapolis, it was a great fit.


What is your current job at Duke?

I’ve been supporting the biomedical informatics needs for the MURDOCK study and other population health and personalized medicine programs for many years. Since 2008, I have served as the associate director for bioinformatics for the CTSA-supported biomedical informatics activities. However, now I am transitioning into a faculty position. As of September 1, 2015, I will join the new division of Translational Biomedical Informatics within the School of Medicine’s Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics. This is a division supported in part by the Duke CTSA. I’ll be the third faculty member in the division, along with Meredith Zozus and Erich Huang. For the first year, I probably won’t be teaching. Instead, I’ll be preparing grants to support my current research interest, which is enabling personalized medicine by improving clinician decision support for genomic data. I’m also interested in Research Data Warehousing and the ethics around genomic medicine and data sharing.

It’s rather ironic that I will have moved from designing software interfaces for cell phones at Microsoft to working on user-friendly interfaces for physicians. But personalized medicine is all about finding the right intervention for the right person at the right time, and to do that you have to take all the information you have into account. That includes traditional biomarkers such as rashes or fever, to biomarkers on the omic scale that are newly discovered. It includes taking data from gadgets like the FitBit and food trackers. And it includes behavior and lifestyle decisions. All that information turns out to be way more than the human brain is capable of managing at one time on its own. We have to find ways to develop user-friendly interfaces to help busy clinicians use all this data in the course of a brief doctor’s visit.


What is one of your personality strengths?

I tend to be good at introducing people. That plays out in the many bioinformatics groups I have been involved in. For example, I started the Women in Informatics group at AMIA (American Medical Informatics Association). I’ve worked with other CTSA consortium colleagues to create the Biomedical Resource Ontology (BRO) to enable people to describe biomedical resources using the same terms so that it is easier to catalogue and search these resources. Within the CTSA Bioinformatics Core I helped facilitate the Bioinformatics Community at Duke – an email list and series of monthly meetings to connect people interested in bioinformatics. I even helped organize a “Speed Science” event last year to help researchers find collaborators. We hope to offer another speed science event this fall.


What do you do when you aren’t at Duke?

Mostly I try to keep up with my five-year-old twins, Zev and Darius. I used to have hobbies like making stained glass and biking, but they are temporarily on hold.


What books are you reading?

I don’t actually read much anymore, but I listen to audio books during my commute and at the gym. I’ve been listening to “All the Light We Cannot See”, “America’s Bitter Pill” and I love Ken Follett’s historical fiction series.


What is something about you that most people don’t know?

I had my DNA tested by 23andMe, one of the direct-to-consumer businesses that has sprung up to provide this service outside of the traditional health system. I wrote up a case study for the Journal of Personalized Medicine of my experience of having my pregnancy treatment changed because of the information I learned as a consumer. [Journal of Personalized Medicine, 2012, 2, 192-200]