Three Mentors, One Professorship

Kenneth Mandl becomes inaugural Lindberg Professor of Pediatrics

Honoree Kenneth Mandl, center, celebrates with HMS Dean George Q. Daley (left) and future professorship namesake Isaac Kohane.
Honoree Kenneth Mandl, center, celebrates with HMS Dean George Q. Daley (left) and future professorship namesake Isaac Kohane. Image: Channing Johnson

Mentorship in biomedical informatics took center stage March 30 at the celebration of the establishment of the Donald A. B. Lindberg Professorship in Pediatrics and the installation of its first incumbent, Kenneth Mandl.

“The celebration of mentorship—of Dr. Lindberg, who had such a profound influence on Zak Kohane, who then has had such a profound influence on Ken Mandl—is really what this great institution is all about,” said Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley.

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The story began with Lindberg, the professorship’s current namesake, regarded as a visionary in the field of bioinformatics. As director of the National Library of Medicine for 31 years, Lindberg oversaw the launch of groundbreaking medical data-access platforms and established the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

“Decades before anyone was talking about open data or open science, he opened up the medical literature to the world through PubMed and later PubMed Central,” said Mandl. “He made tectonic shifts in the transparency of clinical trials through his work with Alexa McCray and”

In 1983, one year before Lindberg took the helm at the NLM, a graduate student named Isaac (Zak) Kohane read a remarkable paper by Lindberg about a computer program that attempted to automate disease diagnoses using probabilistic reasoning.

Ten years later, Kohane was again inspired when Lindberg created the Unified Medical Language System, a “super-dictionary” that allows different medical languages to talk to one another and has sparked thousands of research programs.

Lindberg’s work “allowed people like myself and Ken to have scientific careers that were recognized and funded,” said Kohane, who is now the Marion V. Nelson Professor of Bioinformatics and chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at HMS.

Mentorship and collaboration helped make possible Kohane’s own trailblazing accomplishments in machine learning and signal processing, functional genomics and the development of infrastructure for safe and effective sharing of clinical data for research and patient care.

“You’ve been incredibly influential to us,” Kohane told Lindberg at the professorship event. “My first grant from the NIH was from NLM. It gave me confidence with my mentees to say, ‘Yes, you can actually have a career.’”

Mandl was one such mentee.

When Kohane was a senior resident, he met Mandl, then an intern, and was impressed by Mandl’s ability to foresee future directions for bioinformatics embedded in present-day developments Kohane took for granted. Mandl, who was at first worried that others would be quicker or more qualified to accomplish his ambitious goals, took heart in Kohane’s conviction that, individually and together, they had the skills and drive to “make things happen.”

In the ensuing years, the pair advanced the field in ways that are lauded around the world, said Lindberg, adding, “The two are a wonderful combination.”

Now an HMS professor of biomedical informatics and pediatrics, Mandl directs the Computational Health Informatics Program, or CHIP, which Kohane founded at Boston Children’s Hospital. Mandl has been recognized particularly for his pioneering work in real-time tracking of infection spread across populations, engaging patients in producing and accessing data and developing open-source software that transcends electronic health record limitations.

Nor does the legacy end there. A dedicated teacher himself, Mandl has received the A. Clifford Barger Award for top mentors at HMS.

“Ken is laying clear for a whole new generation of mentees his ability to perceive beyond the surface level of medicine and use information technology to create new opportunities,” said Kohane.

“I’m thrilled you’re the inaugural holder of this chair,” Kohane added. “I cannot think of a more deserving national leader in this space. I think you will be an example not only to the students and fellows we already know but for many generations to come.”

The professorship was made possible by Boston Children’s and Children’s Hospital Pediatric Associates. It will be renamed the Isaac S. Kohane Professorship in Pediatrics upon Kohane’s retirement.

“I can only imagine how proud Dr. Kohane must be to watch as one of his earliest mentees, already his successor as the director of CHIP, now becomes the first incumbent of the Harvard professorship that will eventually bear his name,” said Gary Fleisher, physician-in-chief and pediatrician-in-chief at Boston Children’s and the Egan Family Foundation Professor of Pediatrics at HMS.

Situating the professorship within pediatrics “is a signal embrace of informatics’ role in advancing the health of children,” said Mandl. “With this generous gift, I will try to take forward what I’ve learned from Don, Zak and Gary toward improving the way we care for kids.”