Epilepsy expert and Chief Research Information Officer at Cleveland Clinic, Lara Jehi MD, MHCDS reveals how growing up in a war zone inspired her to become a medical professional.
What got you interested in medicine, especially epilepsy research?
I grew up in Lebanon during the civil war, which started the year I was born so I saw with my own eyes the impact a war could have on a country. There is no universal care in Lebanon, it’s heavily weighted towards private pay. I saw the impact such a system has on the community so I grew up with a sense of mission that people needed to be taken care of and I needed to do my part to help.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
Yes, but there was also a point in time I wanted to be an engineer because I have always loved mathematics. I feel safe and secure with numbers. That’s probably why I ended up in a field of research that’s about assessing and measuring outcomes and developing predictive models. All those are all about numbers.
Do you find that transition overwhelming? After all, engineering and medicine seem to be two worlds?
Yes, engineering and medicine are two different disciplines. Engineering is very structured; many of its concepts needed to be tested and fully verified. Whereas in medicine, there are many unknowns. There are many factors, some of which may have nothing to do with science, affecting a clinical decision. So, yes, engineering and medicine are different but they are not mutually exclusive.
Medicine uses many engineering tools. We need to address and overcome the many challenges in medicine with tools and this is where engineering comes in. I see AI and data science as the bridges between these two fields.
Could your career have ever taken a very different direction?
I suppose anything was possible, but my career choices just came naturally. I went into medicine and got interested in neurology since there were so many things we didn’t know about the brain. I got into studying epilepsy because that’s one of the areas where there would be cures. There are many medications to stop seizures, and patients with drug-resistant epilepsy can undergo brain surgeries.
This is not always the case in neurology. Many conditions affecting our brains are chronic and incurable. Like someone suffering from a stroke, there is no way to turn their brains back to the original state.
I guess, to a certain extent, my engineering self plays a part in my choice. I am very much into outcome research, things like whether an intervention works and if surgery is effective or not. I am also obsessed with data. What you can learn by combining datasets and how do you go from data to knowledge. So I believe all these led me to my current role as the Chief Information Officer.
Who’s been your biggest influence?
Usually the biggest influence in one’s life tends not to be someone professional. They are the ones who motivate you and make you who you are. For me, that’s my mom. She always challenges me to do better and to change the status quo of things. I think I am who I am today because of her.
Professionally, it would be Dr. Serpil Erzurum, who now chairs the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute. She is also the Chief Research and Academic Officer. I see her as a mentor. It’s been quite transformative working with her for the past 10 years. She has the vision, integrity and service mindset that drives the decisions and priorities of our healthcare system.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
It’s difficult to pick one. About eight years ago, I led an international team of researchers, a project that involved eight countries, to develop the first nomograms for individualized outcome prediction after epilepsy surgery. The result was published in The Lancet and was chosen as one of the top five innovations of the year.
I was proud of that work because it opened a new world for the epilepsy community. Up until then, people regarded data and models as academic exercises. They didn’t realize how data could be applicable to patient care. Recently, I’ve been very proud to be involved in the building of a biorepository for the Cleveland Clinic at an enterprise level that is aligned with the routine provision of clinical care.
What’s been your biggest disappointment?
I have many! But I cherish failures as much as I cherish successes. I don’t like the word ‘disappointment’ though because normally, I remind myself of Thomas Edison who won’t say ‘I have failed 100 times’, rather, ‘I have tried 100 times in the wrong way.’ I guess my biggest disappointments are times when I lost an opportunity to create something good because I was impatient. I didn’t take time to assess and listen to others around me.
Something I learnt as I got older, and also something I would tell my younger self, is to be more patient, open, flexible and take more time to learn before acting. When I was younger, I tended to act before thinking. As time went by I realized there’s always more strength working in teams than individually. Leadership means driving a team towards innovation, so it’s not about making yourself shine. I was fortunate to have many mentors who helped me appreciate that, so I can effectively communicate it to others.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Being open, patient, and respectful of others’ ideas was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received. Nonetheless, something that stuck in my mind all these years was what my high school mathematics teacher told me. He said, when you can’t solve a problem; break it down. Likewise, no matter how big it is, don’t think of a problem as a whole, think of it as a series of small problems. That way, you’ll be able to solve one piece at a time and not be overwhelmed.
What’s your greatest fear?
I am afraid of close-mindedness. I think there is nothing that hurts a community more than ignorance, greed and self-obsession. They are all very dangerous traits.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Chocolate! I have a bag of chocolates in the drawer of my office so I can pick one up whenever I am happy or when I want to reward myself. I also love to cook to relax – making up recipes and inventing things in the kitchen at night. Cooking allows me to forget about the outside world so it’s very relaxing.
What’s left to conquer for you?
There are many challenges in my field of research, particularly when it comes to data. Like data curation, analytics, and implementation. I think one of the biggest barriers is we tend to spend time in silos. There is a lack of continuity in the effort to transform data into new knowledge and apply them to patient care. So, that will always remain my priority.