Fred Prior, Ph.D., didn’t envision his skills being the hot commodity they are today. The inaugural chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics said he had only an inkling in 2003, when the world learned that the entire human genome had been sequenced.
“That moved us into the world of Big Data,” said Prior, who joined the UAMS College of Medicine in October 2015. “I knew it was only going to get bigger.”
As he explains, biomedical informatics extracts knowledge from data with computers rather than in traditional laboratories, and understanding the human genome isn’t possible without informatics. Today, research leaders see biomedical informatics as the core of 21st century science. Practitioners in the field are exploiting terabytes of data to achieve the dream of personalized medicine, helping scientists in other fields, and leading their own biomedical research programs.
“It has really exploded in the last five years,” said Prior, who joined UAMS from Washington University in St. Louis, where he established an international reputation in imaging informatics.
What may separate Prior most from his peers is his leadership in both private industry and academic research. He began his career building CT imaging devices before moving into academia, then back to industry. His résumé includes senior management positions at Philips Medical Systems, Eastman Kodak Co. and Silicon Valley startups.
“I’ve developed information technology tools in industry, but I’ve lived in an academic environment and hospital environment, so I understand how
they’re being used,” Prior said. “I’ve seen this from both sides and learned how to manage projects, work effectively with people, and understand problems from different perspectives.”
He bonded with College of Medicine Dean Pope L. Moseley, M.D., as they were interviewing last year for their respective positions at UAMS. Prior became Moseley’s first major recruit.
“We share the same vision,” Prior said. “We want to have one of the top five biomedical informatics departments in the country.”
UAMS was courting Prior at the same time as other schools, and he could have picked from a list of prestigious academic medical institutions.
“Dr. Prior is an internationally renowned expert in imaging informatics,” said Moseley, a physician scientist who has focused extensively on biomedical informatics initiatives in the United States and at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “I can’t stress enough how important this field is to our institution, our state and the future of medicine.”
Prior said he found that UAMS’ leadership understands – where others do not – the value and promise of a robust biomedical informatics program.
By elevating biomedical informatics from a division to a department and with Prior at the helm, Moseley said, UAMS will ensure continued momentum in the advances it has made toward improving health and health care.
Plans include expanding the department and developing a curriculum that prepares biomedical informatics students for jobs outside of academia.
Prior also brings a coveted program to UAMS’ research enterprise: the Cancer Imaging Archive. The archive provides researchers, educators and the general public with a vast, freely accessible, open collection of cancer-specific medical images and metadata. The archive is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute, and Prior is its principal investigator.
Prior, who holds seven U.S. and international patents, worked with a consortium of investigators on the recently concluded Human Connectome Project, mapping neural pathways of the human brain. He collaborated with his wife, Linda Larson Prior, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who directed a component of the Human Connectome. She recently joined the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute from Washington University.
Laura James, M.D., director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute, said Prior brings an extraordinary array of research expertise and experience that will lead to new opportunities for collaboration among investigators in diverse areas of biomedical research.
“He will accelerate our capacity for multidisciplinary team science and has an exciting vision for developing the translational research workforce of the future,” she said. “He also has a clear vision for collaboration within the national Clinical and Translational Science Award network of research sites, which includes UAMS.”
Charlotte Hobbs, M.D., Ph.D., executive associate dean for research in the College of Medicine, said expertise in biomedical informatics is essential for academic health centers in the 21st century. She noted Prior’s international reputation and that he has led teams in private industry and academia on both sides of the Atlantic.
As a demonstration of his success and accomplishments, she said, Prior will be transferring two large, multicenter awards funded by the engineering company Leidos and the NIH to UAMS, as well as two sub-awards on NIH-funded projects.
“We are indeed very fortunate that Dr. Prior has joined the College of Medicine faculty at UAMS, and that he brings his wealth of training and experience to UAMS and the state of Arkansas,” Hobbs said.