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Wanted: The Renaissance Worker

By Robert Hadley

Students use Northern Kentucky University’s newly opened Griffin Hall in late August.

One of the latest trends in commerce to hit the commonwealth is so new it doesn’t even have a precise definition. On the other hand, it’s part of something that’s been around nearly 50 years but only recently has gained attention because of its growing use in business and higher education.

“You could ask 10 different people (for a definition) and probably get eight different answers,” said Eric Rouchka, associate professor of computer engineering and computer science at the University of Louisville.

Welcome to the paradoxical world of informatics. It’s a discipline that may be slippery to define but which undeniably is enjoying increasing popularity as businesses clamor for workers trained in its study and universities across the United States offer degree programs to meet that demand.

“When I think of informatics,” Rouchka said, “I think about anything that involves (a large) amount of information and how you’re going to go about handling that information.”
Another popular definition is that informatics encompasses human interaction with computers. That is close but falls short, according to Kevin Kirby, dean of Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics.

The NKU program operates in a specially designed, futuristic-looking building whose high-tech features are in use for the first time this semester.

“The art and science of information, I think, is a very good definition,” Kirby said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to human-computer interaction. It’s really an umbrella term for all of the fields that deal with the notion of information head on.”

Those fields include a variety of professional disciplines increasingly linked through technology, such as organizational communications, journalism, public relations and broadcasting as well as computer science, management information systems and other traditional technological fields.

Increasing interest in informatics

NKU’s College of Informatics offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in most of these fields as well as certifications in subspecialties such as software engineering and health informatics.

Last year, the College of Informatics graduated around 300 students, 10 percent of NKU’s total, Kirby said. The college’s advanced technology program gives students real-world experience in developing mobile apps and websites for area businesses, such as the Taft Museum in Cincinnati and even for those as far away as the San Ramon Fire Department in San Francisco, a client Apple Inc. recommended.

“It was an early iPhone app two years ago, which has just blossomed,” Kirby said, “and now that code is all over the country, used by first responders.”

One of only a handful of informatics programs in Kentucky, the college is housed in Griffin Hall, a recently completed $52 million LEED-certified building brimming with state-of-the-art digital media labs, reconfigurable study spaces and faculty offices. The building, Kirby said, was designed to foster social interaction and avoid siloing students and faculty in the different fields.

“The kind of student we want to help produce as a graduate is really a Renaissance person,” Kirby said. “We don’t want narrow people who, say, just write code or just write the news stories. We want people who are conversant across all these fields.”

An increased demand for not only traditional information-technology jobs but also the kind of tech-savvy “renaissance people” Kirby mentioned is driving interest in college studies in informatics.

Conversant in multiple technologies

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/oco/ocos305.htm), tech-sector workers – the kind NKU’s program is preparing – are in hot demand nationwide. The bureau projects the number of jobs for computer network, systems and database administrators will grow 30 percent by 2018, outpacing the rates for most other jobs.

Even workers in non-technical fields are increasingly expected to be conversant with the multiple information platforms and technologies that are invading most professions. This is particularly true with healthcare; in fact, an entire subdiscipline of health informatics is being studied at universities across the country.

Examples of this trend include the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Nursing, whose faculty research the subject, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which offers a degree in health informatics and health information management.

Closer to home, the University of Louisville has two separate but related programs in bioinformatics. Through its School of Public Health and Information Sciences, the university offers a Ph.D. in biostatistics, and a master’s degree with an emphasis on bioinformatics or decision science.

Both UofL programs are interdisciplinary, drawing on professors from across the university who have joined the faculty since the program’s inception in 2001; that’s when a grant established the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (bioinformatics.louisville.edu/ about.html). In 2003, UofL added a lab to study DNA and protein-sequence analysis using advanced computer hardware.

UofL and Eastern Kentucky University offer a joint program in bioinformatics through EKU’s departments of computer science and biological sciences (bioinformatics.louisville.edu/ masters.html). Students completing EKU master’s degrees in either applied computing or biology can select the bioinformatics track and complete a supervised internship at the UofL School of Medicine.

Bioinformatics usually means genetics
Rouchka said UofL’s program in bioinformatics is aligned with the National Institutes of Health goal to use genetic sequencing to find markers for specific diseases in individuals.

“What our program is hoping to do is to get people to have a broad base of knowledge,” he said. “So that not only can they come up with hypotheses, they can start to (solve) them from the computational side.”

The University of Kentucky offers a certificate in biomedical informatics, but master’s and Ph.D. programs are in development at the College of Public Health, which operates a Division of Biomedical Informatics out of its Department of Biostatistics.

UK recruited Todd Johnson, a researcher with a background in artificial intelligence, to help the university win a $20 million grant this year from the National Institutes of Health. The long-sought grant allows UK to research ways to find practical applications for medical and scientific research.

A key driver behind the trend to combine the study of technology and healthcare may be provisions in the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that require the adoption of electronic medical records.
It’s also safe to say that the general trend in business today is to hire more tech-savvy people, which in itself may be promoting interest in the study of informatics.

Students the NKU informatics program is producing, said Karen Finan, senior vice president of the economic development organization Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, are highly desired by businesses Tri-ED seeks to attract to the area.

“When we look at the output of that college – trained, high-tech professionals – it makes our job of attracting companies that need that kind of workforce that much easier,” Finan said.