Reflecting on influential factors in her life, Elizabeth Burnside, MD, MPH, describes a wide array, from her training in San Francisco during the dot.com boom, childhood vacations in northern Wisconsin, the work of American biologist E.O. Wilson, and the persistent influence of teams and teamwork.

“Sports analogies can be overused, but truthfully, I was very athletically oriented and played team sports — basketball, softball and tennis — throughout high school. It was a big part of my life,” explains Burnside, the associate dean for team science and interdisciplinary research at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Elizabeth Burnside spinning a basketball on her finger
Elizabeth Burnside

"Looking back, it’s not surprising that, when I was a new section chief for breast imaging, I championed a team approach for breast cancer care,” muses Burnside, who joined the School of Medicine and Public Health Department of Radiology in 2001.

During the first of her three tenures as a section chief, she created an interdisciplinary service line that included nurses, surgeons, pathologists, oncologists, radiation oncologists and others to advance a thennew paradigm for improving patient care.

“Coming together to form a health care team that focused our stellar care delivery on patients, rather than on physicians or the health care system, was an initiative that I felt privileged to fight for,” she recalls.

Connecting patients and populations

After a few years of focusing intensely on clinical care, Burnside felt the pull of research and began laying the groundwork to create a clinical research program.

“I did a year of basic research after my undergraduate degree and loved it, but I always felt a missing connection related to how my work would translate into anything that could impact larger populations. This realization was part of why I did a dual MD-MPH program at Tufts University; I wanted to make connections between the care of individual patients and the care of larger communities,” notes Burnside, who also completed a breast imaging fellowship at the University of California-San Francisco and a master’s degree in medical informatics at Stanford University.

Burnside credits her diverse experiences and education in basic, clinical and population health research with enabling her to appreciate the challenge and importance of translational research. At the School of Medicine and Public Health, with the goal of creating a translational research program focused on breast imaging, she reached out to individuals across UW-Madison to find a collaborator. C. David Page, Jr., PhD, a professor in the Departments of Computer Science and of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics, helped her appreciate how informatics and data science connect disciplines.

“David became the primary mentor for my National Institutes of Health (NIH) K07 award. At that time (2007), it was kind of weird to have a radiologist’s mentoring team include a computer scientist specializing in machine learning and an engineer from Stanford specializing in decision analysis. Fortunately, the NIH thought this team-science approach was novel and has supported our interdisciplinary team for more than a decade,” explains Burnside.

Page comments, “Beth’s research harnesses the power of informatics to create and sustain a highly translational program. Collectively, we have been able to apply novel machine learning methods to improve the detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. She was one of the first at UW-Madison to combine the power of interdisciplinary team science and emerging informatics methods to tackle challenges she saw in her practice.”

Burnside says her role as the co-deputy executive director of the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) came about partly because her breast imaging research team was an early, heavy user of informatics — including methods for secure transmittal and storage of sensitive clinical data — offered through ICTR.

“Marc Drezner, ICTR’s first executive director who is now retired, recruited me to lead the ICTR Imaging Informatics group and help hammer out how to expand informatics services to clinical investigators,” says Burnside, now one of the two principal investigators of ICTR’s Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH, along with ICTR Executive Director Allan Brasier, MD.

Burnside’s posts allow her to help expand the informatics infrastructure at the School of Medicine and Public Health, where the ICTR Biomedical Informatics Core recently evolved into the UW Clinical and Health Informatics Institute (CHI2). Also, she and Dorothy Farrar Edwards, PhD, a professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health’s Department of Medicine and School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, co-lead the UW-Madison team for the national All of Us Research Program, which launched from an NIH award focused on precision medicine (see Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 3, 2018).

Advancing creativity in team science

Despite her commitment to new roles, she maintains a team-focused research program in the Department of Radiology.

“Holding me totally together is my wonderful research team. I feel like we make such a big difference; by working together, we accomplish things we couldn’t do alone,” Burnside reflects. “Every time I learn more about team science, I feel like our group is already striving to check those boxes!”

Brasier, a national leader in team science implementation, notes, “Emerging research has demonstrated that scientific breakthroughs are more likely to arise from smaller, more interdisciplinary teams. The history of Beth’s research program is a perfect example of the successes that are possible when taking this approach. We are very pleased to have her on board at ICTR as we launch new initiatives to promote high-functioning research teams.”

Burnside shares, “My goal in ICTR is to be a connector and to make it easier for different disciplines to work together. Informatics, data science and machine learning are increasingly important tools enabling researchers to look at problems in a way that transcends discipline.”

She continues, “Typically, transdisciplinary teams develop shared goals, but the real advances happen when they collaborate deeply by modifying their original research questions and discovering uncharted territory between disciplines. The creativity inherent in team science is what I hope we can advance at ICTR, at the School of Medicine and Public Health and in the wider clinical research enterprise at UW-Madison.”

By Laura Hogan
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.