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A Closer Look

December 18, 2014 | Matt Batcheldor

Photo by Susan Urmy.

From a young age, Scott Sobecki had two loves: medicine and computers. His career path began with the former and gravitated to the latter.

Vanderbilt brought them together in one job.

Sobecki is the director of the Research Informatics Core at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, leading a 25-person team that develops software to aid researchers in the fight against cancer. He’s found a place where he fully expects to retire.

“The things that I’m doing, the things that we’re doing as a team, they’re helping with clinical trials, they’re helping with cancer care,” he said. It’s “all about doing something that means something, and knowing that I’m helping the research community, knowing that I’m helping patients and their families. These are the reasons why I’m here, and (why I’m) not going to leave.”

Sobecki describes the Research Informatics Core as a mini IT consulting agency within Vanderbilt. Researchers come to the team with a problem. The team develops a solution, the scope of work and the cost. Once agreed upon, the team bills only the hours it spends on a project; it’s a break-even operation.

He offers an example. The team took information from Physician Data Query (PDQ), an online database created by the National Cancer Institute, and put it into a format that includes ties to clinical trials and physician information. While the end user sees only a Web page, behind the scenes, Sobecki’s team has created applications that draw from raw data and convert them to a user-friendly, queryable format.

“If you were looking for a physician who specializes in breast cancer, and you were looking for what clinical trials exist, and then you want to know more about breast cancer, all that information is right there on that Web page,” he said.

Sobecki’s love of computers dates to his childhood in South Bend, Indiana, when his military father brought home a giant old computer. Not long after that, his dad had acquired a personal computer—the Apple IIc—and building, fixing and programming computers soon became his hobby.

“I thought databases and spreadsheets were the coolest things ever,” he said.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary opportunity at John Adams High School inspired his interest in medicine: shadowing doctors as often as every week, sometimes witnessing procedures. He was placed firmly on the path to become a doctor.

“I had always enjoyed helping people,” he said. “I love science and for some reason to me that just seemed to make sense.”

It did, for a time. Sobecki took the equivalent of pre-med classes at Indiana University. But he was concerned about his ability to separate thoughts about the health of patients outside of work.

In his junior year, Sobecki switched to business school. He graduated cum laude from IU in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems and began a successful six-year stint at Deloitte Consulting, first as a systems analyst in Chicago and then managing a team of developers in Nashville.

“I was making a whole lot of partners a whole lot of money,” Sobecki said, but “it was missing something.”

An old colleague who now works at Vanderbilt recruited Sobecki to join the University in 2005 as manager of Application Development for the Mass Spectrometry Research Center and the Jim Ayers Institute for Precancer Detection and Diagnosis. He became director of the Research Informatics Core in 2008.

“It’s amazing to me to be able to do what I love, tying together computers, science, helping people. … It’s awesome.”

– by Matt Batcheldor