The History of BMI

The History of BMI at Stanford

The Biomedical Informatics Training Program (BMI) has a long history both at Stanford and internationally, as the first program of its kind. The degree program was initiated in October 1982 as Medical Information Sciences (MIS) and continues to emphasize interdisciplinary education between medicine, computer science, and statistics, offering pre- and postdoctoral degrees and training. The BMI Program has been supported by a training grant from the National Library of Medicine since 1984, which initially funded only postdoctoral trainees but was broadened to include predoctoral trainees in 1987. The NLM training grant has been renewed every five years since and has provided tuition and stipend support for hundreds of trainees.

Today, the Biomedical Informatics Program sits in the newly formed Department of Biomedical Data Science and emphasizes methods development and application across the entire spectrum of biology, medicine, and human health.

A Foundation in Medicine and Computer Science

The interaction between Computer Science and other disciplines has produced vibrant areas of research and education at Stanford since the late 1960s; computing activities in the School of Medicine were stimulated even earlier, principally by the Chair of Genetics, Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg. Professor Lederberg collaborated with Professor Carl Djerassi (Chemistry) and Professor Edward Feigenbaum (Computer Science) to create what is arguably the first research program that applied the nascent field of artificial intelligence to biomedical problems. Their U.S. Dendral system, which studied the expertise of mass spectroscopists who could interpret an organic compound’s mass spectrum to infer the chemical structure of that compound, is considered the first expert system.

Professor Lederberg’s second key effort was to attract NIH funding for a large medically focused shared computer for the medical school. This computer, known as ACME, was heavily used by Stanford medical researchers, educators, and students until 1973. It brought a computing culture into the environment, which in turn began to attract medical students who had an interest in the intersection of the two fields.  Later ACME gave way to the SUMEX-AIM Computer, also funded by NIH with Lederberg as PI. This resource was the first biomedically focused machine on the ARPANet, which evolved to become today’s Internet.  The SUMEX Computer was a key resource at Stanford for almost 20 years.

Working closely with Stanley Cohen (a Professor of Medicine who later succeeded Lederberg as Chair of Genetics) and Bruce Buchanan (a research scientist in computer science who was a member of the Dendral Project), Edward Shortliffe undertook a combined MD/PhD with the doctoral degree in a self-designed interdisciplinary program. Further discussion with faculty, students, and researchers emphasized the interest and need to formalize this kind of interdisciplinary education, directly leading to the formation of the MIS graduate program.

The Human Genome Project and a Turn at the Turn of the Century

The launch of the Human Genome Project in 1990 and its completion in 2003 seeded substantial interest and need for computing in the biological community. In 2000 Dr. Russ B. Altman succeeded Dr. Shortliffe as Director of the MIS Program and in recognition of a new mission beyond clinical informatics, to fundamental issues of biomedical knowledge, its representation and its application, the program was renamed Biomedical Informatics Training Program (BMI). The term biomedical informatics represents not only the continued development of medical information systems but also the use of sophisticated computation to study medicine at the molecular, cellular, organismal, and population levels.

Biomedical Informatics Today

The BMI Program at Stanford continues to evolve to meet the needs of biomedical computation and application. Under the guidance of the current Director since 2018 and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Data Science, Professor Sylvia Plevritis, and with support from NLM, the BMI Program continues to innovate in the areas of Healthcare and Clinical Informatics, Translational Bioinformatics, and Clinical Research Informatics. In addition to historical research thrusts in biomedical knowledge representation and the genetic basis of disease, current research explores algorithms for real world biomedical data, multi-modal data and meta-analysis, medical image analysis, responsible clinical decision making, reproducibility, methods for efficient querying and access to big biomedical data, and more.