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Payne installed as an inaugural Becker Professor

Honored for global leadership in informatics, data science

by Julia Evangelou StraitJuly 13, 2023

Mark Beaven

Philip R. O. Payne, PhD, a global leader in informatics and data science, has been named an inaugural Janet and Bernard Becker Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Among his many leadership roles, Payne oversees the university’s Institute for Informatics, Data Science and Biostatistics as well as the Bernard Becker Medical Library. This professorship was established to support the library’s leadership.

Payne, the associate dean for health information and data science, and chief data scientist at the School of Medicine, was installed by Chancellor Andrew D. Martin and David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor.

“I am pleased to recognize Philip Payne with the Becker professorship and to take this opportunity to recognize the legacy of the Beckers in supporting Washington University,” Martin said. “Philip has transformed the informatics and data landscape of the university, creating massive new systems and informatics tools that nurture collaborations and new approaches to research that simply were not possible until recently. And we are grateful for the legacy of Janet and Bernard Becker in their dedicated support, which continues to help provide the resources necessary for Philip and his colleagues to make tremendous strides in harnessing the latest tools of big data, including data sharing, machine learning and artificial intelligence, to pursue cutting-edge research in medicine and health care.”

Payne also holds appointments as a professor of general medical sciences and of computer science and engineering.

Payne’s work spans a broad spectrum of informatics and data science research and development, including the use of artificial intelligence to develop precision diagnostics and therapeutic strategies in cancer, neurodegeneration, and rare genetic diseases; the use of electronic health records and clinical decision support tools to facilitate patient-centered and individualized decision-making; and the study of human factors and workflow issues that surround the best use of information technology in health care.

“Philip is well-known nationally and internationally for his work in biomedical informatics, and under his leadership we have rapidly ascended as one of the top institutions in data science related to clinical medicine and biological research,” Perlmutter said. “Using the paradigm of an institute model in the most ideal way, he has worked with all of the clinical and preclinical department heads to recruit faculty and establish programs in clinical, translational and basic research. We look forward to supporting his continued efforts to build on Washington University’s leading role in harnessing the tools of data science to make the next big advances in improving health care for our communities, emblematic of the virtuous cycle of academic medicine.”

Payne has led the field in developing systems that enable data sharing, including the use of synthetic data, working in collaboration with MDClone, a health-care informatics company specializing in the creation of synthetic data. Synthetic data are artificially generated, informed by actual patient data but not directly derived from individual records; this protects patient privacy while allowing researchers to benefit from increased access to large and detailed data sets.

Most recently, Payne led numerous informatics-based initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including leading the launch of a smartphone system called MO/Notify, which allowed Washington University faculty, staff and students to be notified of an exposure to COVID-19.

Payne also was instrumental in developing the collaboration between Washington University, BJC HealthCare and CuriMeta, a St. Louis-based company that specializes in managing real-world data sets that can accelerate new research aimed at predicting, preventing and treating a wide variety of diseases.

Bernard Becker, MD, was an emeritus professor at Washington University and former head of what is now the John F. Hardesty, MD, Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences. Becker and his wife, Janet, made many contributions in support of Washington University and the School of Medicine. They established endowments for glaucoma research, the Bernard Becker Medical Library and the Center for the History of Medicine, and they provided generously for professorships across the university. As head of the department from 1953 to 1988, Becker led it to international recognition for exceptional teaching, clinical care, and research, especially in the management of retinal detachment and glaucoma.

The Beckers had a long history of involvement with education, the arts and social causes in St. Louis. Janet Becker was a dedicated community activist and leading advocate for affordable housing for low-income citizens. Bernard Becker died in 2013 and Janet Becker in 2017.

A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Medical School, Bernard Becker trained in ophthalmology at the Wilmer Institute of Johns Hopkins Hospital and served in the Army Medical Corps before coming to Washington University. His research focused on the prevention of visual loss from glaucoma by regulating intraocular pressure. He co-authored a classic text on glaucoma and published hundreds of scholarly articles.

Becker received numerous awards over his long career, including the Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research and the Mildred Weisenfeld Award for Excellence in Ophthalmology. Washington University awarded him an honorary doctorate, a Distinguished Service Award, the 2nd Century Award, and the Robert S. Brookings Award.

This Janet and Bernard Becker Professorship was established to support the Bernard Becker Medical Library’s leadership. The medical library, completed in 1989, was renamed in Becker’s honor in 1995. He chaired the committee that oversaw its design and construction. Its collection of rare books on ophthalmology and visual sciences, which Becker began, is a major component of the library’s internationally recognized rare book collections.

“I’m honored to receive a Becker professorship,” Payne said. “I’m excited to be at Washington University at a time when we are rapidly expanding our capacity to harness informatics and data science methods to make a lasting impact on research, patient care, and education. We are at the leading edge of a new health-care information age, and it’s a privilege to have such support in building new systems that have the potential to transform health and health care in the decades to come.”

Payne earned his doctoral degree in biomedical informatics from Columbia University. He also holds master’s degrees in medical and biomedical informatics from Columbia. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, San Diego.

Payne is an elected fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics, the American Medical Informatics Association, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and the International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics. Payne also has a substantial track record of entrepreneurship, having launched and led startup and spinoff companies focusing on the broad digital health domain, as well as serving as an adviser to a broad range of venture capital and early-stage companies working to harness AI to improve biomedical research and health-care delivery.

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,800 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the third largest among U.S. medical schools, has grown 52% in the last six years, and, together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,800 faculty physicians practicing at 65 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, otolaryngology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.