When Yogatheesan (Yoga) Varatharajah, Ph.D., began his Technology-Based Healthcare Fellowship with the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance as a member of the inaugural graduate student cohort, he knew very little about the value of cross-disciplinary collaborations.
Now a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois, Varatharajah works to apply Artificial Intelligence solutions to a variety of healthcare problems, showing his students how working across disciplines can have real-world impact. To help John Wei, an Illinois undergraduate in his lab majoring in computer engineering, gain first-hand insight, he recommended Mayo Clinic’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.
Each year, Mayo Clinic invites approximately 180 undergraduate students from across the nation to participate in their SURF program, which provides undergraduates the opportunity to work at the forefront of biomedical research at one of the world’s leading medical centers. As part of the longstanding Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance, Mayo Clinic reserves seven spots each year for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students, who are chosen by a pre-selection committee.
Wei was selected to work with Dr. Raymond Iezzi at Mayo Clinic in developing a machine learning pipeline for indirect ophthalmoscopy frame selection.
“While conducting research at Mayo Clinic, I could gain clinical insights, work on real clinical data, and test my algorithms with doctors in the clinic,” said Wei. “Prof. Varatharajah helped me with designing algorithms to process indirect ophthalmoscopic images and detect blood vessels and validating them.”
Bridging clinical and technical expertise
Starting in January 2023, Varatharajah will mentor a Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance Technology-Based Healthcare fellow, Neeraj Wagh, the twelfth graduate student to join the Fellowship for Technology-Based Healthcare program.
A doctoral candidate in the Department of Bioengineering, Wagh will join ongoing research with Varatharajah and Gregory Worrell, M.D., Ph.D., at Mayo Clinic in developing machine learning tools to predict disease states and treatment response in patients suffering from neurological and psychiatric diseases. This research seeks to improve the moderate success rates of current standards-of-care, providing better treatment decisions and outcomes for epilepsy, stroke, and depression patients.
“My hope is that Neeraj will spend time physically at Mayo to develop a deep understanding of the clinical data, biology behind these diseases, and the perspective of the patients and clinicians,” said Varatharajah. “At the same time, Neeraj will continue to work with myself and others at Illinois and develop machine learning approaches guided by clinical domain knowledge to make substantial progress on solving the problem at hand.”
Launched in 2010, the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance offers a well-established platform for cross-disciplinary collaborations focused on research translation. “I like to think of the UIUC-Mayo collaboration as a yin-yang (technical-clinical) balance,” said Wagh. “Prof. Varatharajah’s lab sits in the middle – bridging the gap between deep technical expertise and unaddressed clinical needs. It is exciting to work with Prof. Varatharajah because he keeps an open mind about new technical ideas while tackling novel and impactful clinical applications.”
To learn more about the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance, including its educational programs, visit mayoillinois.org.