Innovator Profile: Dr. Mark Levine

By March 26, 2018Innovators
Dr. Mark Levine, Oncology researcher and innovator

Name: Dr. Mark Levine
Organization: Escarpment Cancer Research Institute – a joint research institute of Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University
Title: Professor Department of Oncology McMaster University, Buffett Taylor Chair in Breast Cancer Research McMaster University, Scientific Director of the Escarpment Cancer Research Institute, and a Medical Oncologist (now retired) at Hamilton Health Sciences’ Juravinski Cancer Centre.

1. What is your role with the HHS/IBM Innovation Exchange?

HHS and IBM have commenced collaboration on a pilot research project to apply IBM’s analytic and cognitive capabilities in support of creating a breast cancer Learning Health System (LHS). The objective of the pilot is to improve the treatment of Stage III breast cancer patients and provide opportunities for research by creating a system that collects patient-related outcomes in a timely manner. The development of a breast cancer LHS will provide the accurate measurement of clinician and system indicators in order to support frontline care and clinical decision-making. I am co-principal investigator for the LHS pilot study along with Gordon Alexander from IBM.

Interestingly enough, when the announcement was made about the new collaborative research initiative between IBM and HHS back in early 2016, I leapt at the opportunity to investigate how emerging technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning can be applied to the field of Oncology. I think it’s important as a research leader in our organization to seek out new techniques and be open to new possibilities.

2. What’s the biggest challenge in healthcare that you’d like to tackle?

Healthcare is very expensive today, with no signs of decreasing costs. Patients desire the best treatments. Choices have to be made in support of patient outcomes but also within the backdrop of these fiscal constraints. In order to make good decisions, clinicians need to be well informed. They can’t rely solely on their experience and on published clinical practice guidelines. They need insights backed by real data on their own patients in order to help support the clinical decision process. That’s why it’s so important to have a LHS where “science, informatics, incentives, and culture are aligned for continuous improvement and innovation, with best practices seamlessly embedded in the delivery process and new knowledge captured as an integral by-product of the delivery experience,” as defined by the National Academy of Medicine. I think only by having a LHS can we truly understand and manage healthcare costs. At the same time, we’ll better understand outcomes and maximize the patient experience given the available resources.

3. What is the most rewarding part of the work that you do?

Learning. I like to learn. I feel like every time I get involved in a new project or I get a chance to collaborate with others, I learn something. I also learn from my patients. Many of them are so brave and inspire me. In my opinion, you’re never too old to learn something new. I’m a researcher with a zeal for continual education. The time spent with Gordon and the IBM team over the last year to see the advancements in Information Technology (IT) like Big Data, Analytics, Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning has been an incredible learning experience. I just try to learn something new every day. For me, learning and research are fun!

4. Where do you look for inspiration to help fuel your ideas and energy at work?

Everywhere. As mentioned, I am intellectually curious and I have a strong desire to learn. But it begs the philosophical question: Is one curious by nature or is it something learned? Was I born to be a researcher or was I simply trained? Personally, I think it’s both. I’ve always been inquisitive by nature, but I was also inspired in part by others around me to pursue the research career path and to be the best I can be.

One of my early mentors, Jack Hirsh, a renowned medical researcher as well as a teacher and administrator, used to say that to be successful in research is a combination of three factors:

1. Mentorship – having the right role model is so important to provide support and guidance
2. Critical Mass – having others around you who are like-minded to network and collaborate
3. Burning Passion – having that motivation that spurs you on and nurtures your inner drive

5. What’s the one thing you think that great innovators do differently?

I don’t think innovators set out to view themselves as innovators. I know I certainly don’t consider myself as one. I think innovators simply look at a situation differently than others might, recognize when there’s room for improvement, and have the self-motivation and drive to go for it. They seize opportunities. and aren’t afraid to fail. In the Diffusion of Innovation model, innovators represent that small percentage of the population who are the early adopters and want to be the first to try something new. Innovators are venturesome, interested in new ideas, and willing to take risks because they see the potential benefits if the idea takes hold. When opportunity knocks, innovators answer the door.

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