Hajim Spotlights

Michael Woodbury

Class Year: 2019
Major: Neuroscience
Challenge: Advance Health Informatics
(Click here to see the poster about his GCS experience that he presented at the Undergraduate Research Expo.)

How did you hear about the Grand Challenges Scholar Program?

I heard about it from a friend who’s an engineering major and said this was a cool program. If you’re working on a project, GCSP allows you to look at it through a different lens, communicate with more professionals at our school, and try to expand on the project.

So, I approached Emma Derisi (director of UR GCSP) who loved my project. It’s an app called OpenCare that helps caregivers and their loved ones improve their quality of life. I worked at a hospice the summer after my freshman year, and I realized for the first time that caregivers generally aren’t professionals who are very well trained. They’re generally family members who have to balance complicated work lives and financial situations. Caregiver stress is a big problem that isn’t currently tackled sufficiently.

I then worked with a recent UR graduate, Kyle Ryan, on an app to track the symptoms of caregiver stress and those of the loved one’s condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease.You track the symptoms over time and can have a visual representation of your quality of life. In addition, users can set medication and doctor’s appointment reminders among other helpful features.

This is my attempt to make a dent in that problem.

By the time I talked with Emma, I had actually already completed all of the competencies, so it was mostly a matter of completing a written reflection and conducting more research on different aspects of my project.

Which of the five “competencies” (research, interdisciplinary, entrepreneurship/innovation, global, service) did you most enjoy completing? Why?

The entrepreneurship competency was probably the most fun to work on. The biggest focus of my entrepreneurship was partnering with Seth Rogen (an actor who advocates for increased awareness of Alzheimer’s disease through a charity he started called Hilarity for Charity), who I worked with this past summer in a research lab at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

When I approached the charity, they loved the app and are now sponsoring it for everyone in their home caregiver service.

Do you think you will want to continue to work in the field of your “challenge” after graduation? How?

Definitely. Next year I am going to medical school. While I’m there I may do a master’s in bioinformatics to help build my coding skills so I can work more independently on all aspects of the project.

Hopefully as a medical student I will have the knowledge and resources necessary to tackle even greater problems using health informatics.

How did being at the University of Rochester help you to complete this program?

UR is a huge research school, attached to a very fine medical center, so I was definitely able to take advantage of professionals in a wide range of specialties to do preliminary research on the app, and get feedback at different stages. And I also conducted research at the University, which helped me build my knowledge of neuroscience and related diseases, and which has also helped tremendously.

Additionally, at the University we have a cluster system (read more here), and I chose to take classes in the clusters Introduction to Public Health and Ethics and Values. These areas helped tremendously with many of the challenges in creating OpenCare that I didn't really foresee when I first started the project.

For you, what is the value of the Grand Challenges program?

When I first created OpenCare, I had a somewhat narrow view of the project. I didn’t think of it too much in terms of bioinformatics and health informatics, even though that is exactly the field of study I was leveraging to help my target population.

But now that I’ve worked on this project and looked at it through the lens of all these different competencies, I have a much wider, well rounded understanding of the problem of caregiver stress as well as the true potential of health informatics in alleviating human suffering, insights that are definitely going to inform my future projects in medical school and beyond.