The art and science of seeking patterns in data
Michael Wilczek has a scientist’s curiosity and an artist’s keen eye. In his spare time, he draws and paints. In his work, he uses patient data to study their health and mental health status on one hand and genetic changes on the other, turning his findings into visuals that clinicians and scientists can understand.
Wilczek left the University of Maine in 2021 with a PhD in microbiology, having used big datasets to uncover how genes are turned on or off when JC polyomavirus infects brain cells. Having heard about the Roux Institute from his thesis advisor, Associate Professor Melissa Maginnis, he sought out a postdoctoral fellowship to teach in the master’s in biotechnology program while building his observational health research skills with the OHDSI Center team.
“I pestered people at Roux for a postdoc because of their bold vision for graduate education,” he says. “I also cared about expanding my data science and communications skills, which are transferable to any industry.”
Today he’s neck-deep in not one, but three projects. With OHDSI Center affiliate faculty member and assistant professor of epidemiology Brianne Olivieri-Mui and Chelsea Wong, a Harvard Medical School fellow in geriatric medicine, he’s analyzing data from the All of Us Research Program, funded by NIH to shed light on the health of diverse U.S. populations. Looking at older LGBTQ+ patients, the team aims to better understand mental health comorbidities in this underrepresented group, who suffer disproportionately from anxiety, depression, and HIV infection, among other health challenges.
With Northeastern health psychologist and Clinical Associate Professor Irina Todorova, Wilczek is working with Concert AI, a company that deploys artificial intelligence to mine insights from real-world data. They are looking at the degree to which patients—particularly underserved groups—have availed themselves of screening and diagnostic tools and interventions for cervical and breast cancer before and during the pandemic.
“We’re assessing the impact on health across geographic regions, ages, races and ethnicities,” he explains.
As if that weren’t enough, Wilczek has also joined the global OHDSI Genomics Working Group, whose purpose is to advance gene-based, personalized medicine. The group is devising a standard way to capture the myriad genetic mutations and their associated proteins that arise due to aging and environmental and other factors.
Ultimately, the goal is to map mutations to diseases, Wilczek says. Collaboration is key. “The bigger the dataset we can pull together, the better our results.”