The first of his kind

Grace Milauskas
July 26, 2022
From left to right: Dean Traktman, Jordon Ritchie, Ph.D., Brandon Welch, Ph.D.
From left to right: Dean Traktman, Jordon Ritchie, Ph.D., Brandon Welch, Ph.D.

The Medical University of South Carolina and Clemson University began to see a need for health data informatics to solve challenging problems in biology, medicine and public health. In their partnership, the universities received a training grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And so, the Biomedical Data Science and Informatics Ph.D. program was born. The first candidate, Jordon Ritchie, Ph.D., finished the program in July 2021

"I've always had a trailblazer quality to me. There was a lot about this program, with it being new and venturing off into a new opportunity with Clemson. And it was different and unique and provided opportunities for growth outside of a cookie-cutter Ph.D. program," said Ritchie.

Ritchie experienced faculty developing a program as he went through it. "I watched closely as a group of talented and experienced faculty members put together a program out of whole cloth.," he said. "They developed classes, stepped in and taught and helped students do research, find meaningful projects and move the needle in important ways in biomedical informatics, research and health care settings."

Being the first graduate of a new program can have its challenges, but not for Ritchie. He was able to learn more from this experience than simply taking coursework in an established Ph.D. program. He gained opportunities to help write coursework and teach as an adjunct faculty. Ritchie has always been close to the bioinformatics field; before arriving at MUSC, he was a software developer for the startup company Myriad Genetics. The company specializes in bioinformatics analysis for genetic tests that determine the risk of developing a disease, assess the risk of disease progression and guide treatment decisions across medical specialties where critical genetic insights can significantly improve patient care and lower health care costs.

"Jordon was the ideal first student because he does have that entrepreneurial mindset, and that mindset allows the greatest amount of flexibility to achieve the greatest outcome," said Brandon Welch, Ph.D. "Jordon rolled with it, and we learned together. He has the perfect personality and was able to set the example for the rest of the students in many ways."

Currently, Ritchie is the chief executive officer of Aimedica, a health care startup founded in 2019. It is a physician-led health care tool automating risk calculation using electronic health record data to improve patient care.

Do you have advice for current students?

Just keep showing up. Keep pressing play. Keep working hard. Keep on keeping on. Ph.D.'s are hard. You have to come to work hard; a lot of this is faith-based, and you don't know the outcome or the end from the beginning, and sometimes you have to take a leap. There are tons of opportunities. Barriers are coming down, and technology is getting better. There's never been a better time to come in and get involved with the intersection of technology and health care.

What is one thing you wish you had known before entering this program and starting at MUSC?

It's a classic case of you don't know what you don't know. So you have to take the leap. Get passionate about something. Get excited about something, a health initiative, could be personal, or maybe it runs in your family. Perhaps it's something you observed in the community that you care about. The bottom line is that everybody will have a brush with health care at some point in their life. The technology that's being implied and the program is about how to intersect technology with health care efficiently and effectively to drive better outcomes. It's a remarkable thing to have the opportunity to be a part of.

What was your favorite moment during the program?

One of my earliest papers that Dr. Welsh and I wrote together. I enjoyed writing it. We worked together on an electronic health record taxonomy paper. We looked at hundreds of apps across the electronic health record marketplaces and classified them based on their purpose. What they were and what problem they were solving. We had to go through all this research and click through to figure it out, which was intensive. That was my first publication with the program, and it was a significant milestone watershed moment, you know, lots of effort work that paid off that was exciting.