Reflections from Barr-Spach Scholarship recipients

Park and Morris

By Brittany Vekstein

Christine Park and Miranda Morris are recent recipients of the Barr-Spach Medicine and Engineering scholarship. The scholarship—administered through Duke MEDx—supports the recipients as they complete master’s degrees from Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. This competitive scholarship provides support toward tuition and fees, and is awarded annually to third-year Duke medical students who have been accepted into the MD-MEng dual degree program.

Park and Morris are part of the first cohort to pursue Duke's Artificial Intelligence for Product Innovation Master’s of Engineering (AIPI) as medical students. We caught up with them to find out how the program is going and what they have learned so far.

You are the first medical students to pursue the AI for Product Innovation for your Master’s in Engineering degree. What type of foundational work or skills prepared you for this training?

Park: As a chemistry major coming into medical school, I didn’t have extensive background in engineering or coding. But I did do some biomedical engineering research in undergrad that allowed me to see the translational aspect of engineering and medicine. Then in medical school, I was exposed to a lot more coding again through research, which helped me prepare for the technical aspects of the AIPI program. 

Morris: Prior to medical school, I received my bachelors’ degrees in studio art and health policy alongside the pre-med track and had no prior experience in engineering. In medical school, I became interested in surgical innovation research using 3D printing technology and machine learning and wanted to develop a deeper technical understanding of the topics. I essentially built up my skillset from scratch, beginning with the python bootcamp at the start of the program. While I faced a steep learning curve, I am grateful that the program had faith in both my capacity and motivation to learn the new skills. My experience in medical school has certainly prepared me for significant learning curves, but this was an exciting new type of challenge.

What internship or project will you be starting this summer? 

Park: I have several ongoing projects that I have been working on before the AIPI program that I will continue throughout the summer. I will also be working with a start-up in Research Triangle Park (RTP) to apply the skills that I gained from the program and research to see how it is deployed in a real-world setting.

Morris: This summer, I am in the Health Data Science research program with AI Health. I am joining interdisciplinary teams to apply deep learning to investigate AI solutions for medical/surgical questions. My primary team for the research program will be with the orthopedic surgery department.

Did the courses inspire you to think about and approach problems differently?

Park: Most definitely. Every course was unique and enlightening in its own way but if I had to select one course that was the most impactful it would be AIPI510: Sourcing Data for Analytics. This course made me realize the importance of understanding the problem and data and preparing the data in order to effectively accomplish the task at hand.

Morris: These courses inspired me to navigate problems with a more practical yet nuanced framework. My problem-solving mindset steered towards finding simpler approaches and solutions, which was somewhat paradoxical to my initial expectations. I learned from my professors and the industry experts the importance of interpretability to successfully introduce and implement new tools. While I still intend to aim high in my research explorations, I also learned to navigate problems more systematically, beginning with the availability and quality of data, and the potential utility of data science solutions.

Has the program given you an opportunity to work on teams with people with different skills, backgrounds, and objectives?

Park: For sure. The various group projects in all the courses I took allowed me to meet and connect with students from different engineering disciplines and learn from the enriching conversations we had about their background and experiences. This collaboration not only made me realize the importance of teamwork but also made me broaden my perspective on different approaches that could be taken to solve the problem.

Morris: I learned an immense amount from my classmates, who all come from different backgrounds with various work experiences prior to the program. Having had little prior exposure to both data science and industry, I had great opportunities to learn about fields beyond my own experiences.

How do you see applying what you’ve learned in AI for Product Innovation in your future clinical practice?

Park: The big reason that I pursued the AIPI program was to develop the skills I need to apply them to research I plan to do in my clinical pursuit. I hope to use my knowledge I obtained from the program to work with big data in both clinical outcomes and imaging to provide insight into how we can optimize patient care and healthcare resource utilization in medicine.

Morris: I recently completed my first review article on deep learning applications in surgery and I am working on a few other papers with a multidisciplinary team. I am excited to continue my training in the medicine/engineering intersection and to begin applying my skills towards surgical solutions.

Can you share your reflections about the program for someone considering AI for Product Innovation?

Park: If anyone is interested in learning more about artificial intelligence/machine learning and their application in whatever field of pursuit, I would highly recommend this program without reservation!

Morris: Prior to this program, I felt like engineering was beyond my reach and that it was “too late” for me to enter this intimidating new world. Just like in medicine, machine learning involves learning a sort of brand-new language, and before you have the vocabulary, it can feel inaccessible. I would encourage anybody who is remotely interested to trust their capacity to learn, nurture their curiosity, and take the leap!

The scholarships were created by a grateful student to honor two Duke mentors—biomedical engineering professor and associate professor of pediatrics Roger C. Barr, BS’64, PhD’68, and pediatric cardiologist Madison S. Spach, T’50, MD’54, HS’54-59.