A forest of innovation

This week has been the hottest week of the year in Iowa. As you read this, an estimated 10,000 cyclists are riding the 64 miles from Anamosa to DeWitt. Tomorrow, they will dip their front tires in the Mississippi River after crossing the final 32 miles to the riverside town of Clinton, Iowa. This will complete the nearly 470-mile trip that began on Sunday with their back wheel in the Missouri River. The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is yet another tradition we are happy to see return as vaccine adoption spreads despite a worrisome rise in delta variant cases. Many of our own University of Iowa Health Care faculty and staff have braved this humid Iowa week to take part in RAGBRAI. We wish them fleet legs, good hydration, a mind on contact precautions, and a safe return home.

Beating the heat is especially tough from atop a bicycle on an asphalt highway, but it can be a challenge from anywhere with heat indices like we are currently experiencing. Fortunately, life in Iowa comes with easy access to trails that run alongside cooling rivers and lakes and, most important, through wooded areas. It is always surprising how quickly the temperature around me drops when my running path takes me into the trees. The Japanese concept of “forest bathing” highlights the mental and emotional benefits to be gained from spending time in nature, but there is also a noticeable physical impact of stepping into the woods. I began to think recently about how any one of those trees on its own might offer a little shade, but combined with a multitude of others, their impact on the very air around us is transformative.

The same is true of innovation in our department and throughout the college and university, if you will forgive the metaphoric leap. Each of us has ideas, big and small, ideas that tap into our training, our experience, our individuality. If we encourage them and have the room to nurture them, they can go from unique to visionary. And when we combine them with our colleagues’ input, their own ideas, this is when we begin to see real change. As always, examples abound throughout our department. Two of the six recently awarded pilot grants from the university’s Iowa Initiative for Artificial Intelligence (IIAI) will come to teams headed by department faculty. In each case, the IIAI will provide resources and expertise to projects with the potential to provide greater clinical accuracy in areas of uncertainty. The first, to co-leads Drs. Milena Gebska and Brian Olshansky seeks to develop a tool that can give the Emergency Department a more robust approach for triaging potential cases of syncope. Second, a team led by Dr. Kamopun Ussavarungsi will use their time with IIAI to convert lung scans into an instantaneous and more accurate sense of the severity of someone’s idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

These projects are not our department’s first forays into machine learning and artificial intelligence. We were proud to partner with Ophthalmology’s Dr. Michael Abràmoff and the deployment in primary care and diabetes clinics of his AI-driven retinal scan that effectively screens for diabetic retinopathy progression. Dr. Abràmoff has since parlayed that discovery into a profitable business and we applaud his ingenuity. He was also supported by the UI Research Foundation in the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), who has helped guide a number of departmental discoveries from the laboratory to market. Recently they supported the ingenuity of Cardiovascular Medicine’s Dr. Steven Mickelsen. His startup company Farapulse, Inc., which patented a treatment and device that will advance a novel approach for the ablation of the most common arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, recently attracted a significant investment from Boston Scientific. And as postdoc researcher Dr. Calvin Carter and MD/PhD student Sunny Huang advance their innovative discovery managing diabetes with electromagnetic waves through their startup Geminii Health, faculty mentors within the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center as well as in the OVPR will be right there beside them. These successes do not occur in a vacuum, but in an environment that supports our colleagues to be entrepreneurial and to chase their dreams with expert input.

What about educational trees in this forest of innovation? I was pleased to see the return of the Midwest Critical Care Fellows Ultrasound Symposium, hosted for the fifth time at Iowa by our Pulmonary Division and directed by Dr. Greg Schmidt. Now that so many residency programs have followed our lead and added point-of-care, or bedside, ultrasound training to their standard curriculum, it may not seem so novel, but eight years ago when this two-day training began, faculty had to spend a lot more time promoting its use than they do today. And, finally, I know that Vice Chair for Education Dr. Manish Suneja is eager to share news and increase the use of a mobile app that we have developed in-house, allowing for real-time, 360-degree feedback between residents and attendings. Those who have used Quikcoach so far know just how seamless and efficient this new tool is. We believe it could become one of the tallest trees in our forest.

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