People frequently use the term “ambassador” to describe Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance Director Bryan White. White’s tenure with the Alliance dates back to its beginnings in 2009, when a faculty contingent visited Mayo Clinic in Rochester to explore the idea of a joint venture. In the past 10 years, the Alliance has grown into a robust entity that has helped to garner an NIH Center of Excellence, clinical tools and technologies used across Mayo, and novel educational opportunities that advance translational research.
White’s passion, vision, and collaborative spirit are at the core of these successes. Colleen Bushell, Associate Director of Health Care Innovation at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, recalls how White connected her team with Mayo Clinic collaborators when he served as Director of Microbiome programs for the Alliance 2010-2012. Bushell and her team had been working with White using AI, analytics, and software visualization to study the microbiome. When he saw similar need for Bushell’s expertise among his colleagues at Mayo, White made introductions and helped to launch seed projects. He facilitated similar connections for many University of Illinois and Mayo collaborators, and short-term projects eventually turned into longer term relationships and major initiatives like KnowEnG, The Knowledge Engine for Genomics, the hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) Grand Challenge Project, significant speed optimization of Mayo’s clinical genome analysis pipeline, and the NCSA’s ongoing engagements in high-performance computing, cybersecurity, and visualization development.
White’s reputation as an ambassador continued to emerge as he built relationships across the two institutions. “It was easy to trust someone who was passionate about making people successful,” Bushell said. “We have built a mutual trust with our early colleagues at Mayo Clinic and they have helped to expand the relationship by sharing their confidence and encouraging others at Mayo to work with Illinois.”
One of these early Mayo Clinic colleagues is Dr. Heidi Nelson, Emeritus Chair Department of Surgery, Fred C. Andersen Professor of Surgery and former head of surgery and Co-Director of the Center for Individualized Medicine Microbiome program. White had developed a working relationship with Nelson and had introduced her to Bushell. White did not have to sell Nelson on the idea of bringing Bushell’s visual analytics team into her microbiome work. In fact, as that relationship grew, Nelson went on to encourage and support other Mayo faculty outside of the microbiome program to collaborate with the team as well.
Nelson sees value in every collaboration. “This Alliance has benefited many at Mayo Clinic—including the Center for Individualized Medicine, the Microbiome program, many individual investigators—and importantly, these benefits transfer to patients. Without Bryan, Mayo would not have the high-quality Microbiome program—and we take great pride in this program, its people, accomplishments, and collaborations with scientists at U of I.”
When reflecting on the many achievements of the Alliance, White shares that the educational programs make him most proud. The Alliance offers a Computational Genomics one-week short course that has taught almost 400 individuals from Mayo Clinic. Through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, Mayo has hosted over 70 Illinois undergraduates, and the IT/Bioinformatics Summer Internship Program has hosted 15 students.
White also worked closely with Mayo Clinic to establish the Technology-Based Health Care Fellowship, a two-year program for graduate students to collaborate on a project that will advance individualized medicine. The graduate researcher spends one year at Illinois and the other year at Mayo.
Bringing computational science and engineering students together with biomedical researchers had not previously been done. Rather than housing students in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, fellows worked within Mayo Clinic’s Information Technology Program. Mathieu Wiepert, Section Head for the Informatics Systems Unit at Mayo Clinic, describes how White garnered support from both Illinois and Mayo researchers to launch the program. “He was very supportive and instrumental in helping us to get the program going, socializing what we were trying to accomplish, and using his relationships to pair up researchers and clinicians at Mayo with professors and students at U of I.”
Since 2016, eight Technology-Based Health Care fellows have been appointed. Two of the three alumni are now employed at Mayo Clinic (the other is at NIH). “Arjun Athreya, Ph.D. and Dan Wickland, Ph.D., are now Mayo employees. Arjun is at the frontier of what we are doing with our AI work and has been incredibly successful. They could easily go to Google or Facebook and make triple their salaries, but they were more interested in what Mayo does. Bryan was the one who really enabled that and helped to bring the interest forward,” Wiepert said.
When White was appointed as Director of the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance in 2012, he collaborated with Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., who was serving as the medical director at the Center for Individualized Medicine, on a vision for the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance that would use each organization’s strengths.
As he prepares for retirement at the end of this month, White can see how this early vision has come to life. “Together the two campuses have worked towards enabling personalized medicine with the common goal of solving the big computational problems associated with individualized medicine while training the workforce that will be the next generation of healthcare professionals. The Alliance has grown in all these areas and, in doing so, has achieved many of its goals that Dr. Farrugia and I envisioned in 2012. The Alliance is now an integral part of both campuses and continues to work towards making individualized medicine a reality for everyone,” says White.
Neal Cohen, Director of the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute (IHSI), which administers the Alliance, sees Bryan’s impact extending far beyond his time at Illinois. “Bryan has been an ideal ambassador-at-large for the Alliance, and has been essential in creating the foundation for its success, by working tirelessly to identify needs and opportunities at Illinois and at Mayo and then connecting the right people to come together for joint projects. As a result, over the past 10 years, just as we have seen the maturing of trainees to become significant contributors to clinical translational work, with some even going on to be recruited to be Mayo employees, we have likewise seen the maturing of the Alliance itself, with a continually growing portfolio of collaborations, with an ever broader range of groups and units at the two institutions who have become part of and have benefitted from the Alliance,” says Cohen.
This would not have been possible without the passion, drive, and knack for building collaborations that White brought to his leadership of the alliance in the past decade.