How Moe Abou Chaar’s Medical Journey Influenced His Interest in Computer Science

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

I finished my medical degree from the University of Kalamoon, Syria in 2014 and started practicing surgical oncology in Jordan after a year of internship, which was between 2017-21. During that time I was drawn to research. One of the major hurdles in my research was data acquisition and the automation of that process. One of my mentors introduced me to the bioinformatics realm and the capabilities of artificial intelligence. I decided to expand my knowledge and seek a degree in computer science at that time, specifically bioinformatics. Then I interviewed at the Mayo Clinic and joined as a research fellow. After two years at Mayo Clinic, I applied to the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BICB) PhD program and was accepted.

How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?

During the last two years of my training during the pandemic, there was a lot of research on COVID-19 and we needed a lot of patient information fast. To be honest, the process of acquiring reliable and accurate data manually is very tiresome. This is where I started looking for methods and options to facilitate and automate that process. The leading site in The United Kingdom utilized our data to come up with a mortality predictive model for patients undergoing surgery, and I was lucky enough to be part of the group.  That was my first encounter with computer science and it sparked my passion. My current interests are data mining/text searching within electronic healthcare records and patient online portal messages, which fall perfectly in that realm.

Tell us more about your internship experiences.

I didn’t have any internship in computer science. I am completely new to the field, I do have a medical degree, so I have zero knowledge of what languages computers speak. When I started my research fellowship here at the Mayo Clinic, I did a boot camp with MIT for full stack development with MERN. It was a six-month, virtual, hands-on training program. I was introduced to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.  The weekly assignments were challenging and interesting. It was almost a mind-blowing experience.

Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved? 

At the moment, I am working full time at Mayo Clinic and I recently transitioned into the role of a Program Research Coordinator at the Trauma Center. Being in a full-time position at Mayo Clinic and being a full-time student, makes extracurricular activities hard to pursue. I hope once things get more streamlined with work and studies, I will be more involved.

What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?

My goal in joining the computer science community at the University of Minnesota is to leverage my medical background to address a gap I've identified in healthcare technology—specifically, the utilization of social determinants of health in cancer patient care. As a cancer survivor myself, I'm motivated to work on creating a simpler algorithm that would facilitate the searching for and identification of such information within electronic health records. There seems to be a lack of tools that focus on this aspect, and I believe even a small contribution in this area could make a meaningful difference. I hope to bring a practical perspective to the field, aiming to enhance how patient data is used in a way that could improve outcomes for many.

Have you been involved with any research on campus?

I am currently working on a paper with Professor Metzger. I was introduced to pedagogy last semester and was astonished by how teaching methodologies differ between the Middle East and the US. We are pitching in a "trailmix teaching philosophy," highlighting the importance of diversity in teaching methods to accommodate the varied learning preferences and habits of students.  We will discuss a range of evidence-based, and engaging activities that allow students to contribute to the educational "recipe," and help instructors achieve multiple pedagogical goals. I am also in the process of finalizing another paper where I utilized my new skills in Python and R to analyze the data from the Upper Digestive Disease survey that is a patient-reported outcomes capturing tool. The results will be presented later in April in a Journal Club class.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

I believe that this is an incredibly exciting field, constantly being updated. It’s a thrilling place to learn new things. The BICB program, in particular, offers the freedom to specialize in your area of interest and to select courses that advance your knowledge. If you have a passion for advancing your computer science knowledge, regardless of your background, I recommend trusting your instincts.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduation, my ultimate plan is to become an NIH-funded researcher and continue my contributions at the Mayo Clinic. Currently, there is a growing demand for medical data scientists, a role not yet well established at the Mayo Clinic. Leveraging both my medical and computer science backgrounds would offer a significant advantage to the medical field. I am hopeful that my plan will succeed, leading me to become a physician and an NIH-funded medical data scientist at the Mayo Clinic.

Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight in the article?

During my second year of medical school, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, an experience that subjected me to rigorous treatment. This period not only heightened my appreciation for the medical aspects of care but also the personal significance and the wealth of knowledge and data involved in treating a patient. After graduating and becoming a physician, I've merged the perspectives of both patient and doctor. Now, by entering the BICB program and delving into computer science, I'm incorporating technology into this blend. With these three facets—experiences as a patient, a physician, and soon, a bioinformatician—I believe I'm crafting a unique combination to benefit patients significantly.