Dr. Jeff Chang is a radiologist and co-founder of Rad AI – an AI-driven platform to streamline radiology workflow.
After starting medical school at NYU aged 16, Jeff became the youngest radiologist and second youngest US physician on record. He undertook graduate work in machine learning at the University of Edinburgh, his fellowship in musculoskeletal MRI, and has an MBA from UCLA Anderson.
Jeff has also been a practicing radiologist with Greensboro Radiology for the past ten years, launching their Emergency Radiology section in 2010.
Prior to Rad AI, Jeff co-founded Doblet, a Y Combinator hardware startup, coordinating its engineering, prototyping and manufacturing efforts. Jeff is also an angel investor in several dozen AI and other deep tech startups.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
A concert violinist. As a teenager, I spent a few years as a violinist in the Washington Symphony Orchestra. Then at another point, I really wanted to be a gymnast.
Could your career have taken a different direction?
Very easily. Growing up, my best subject in school was math. By 8th grade, I was fifth in the nation at that year’s National MATHCOUNTS competition. If I hadn’t skipped high school and started college as a Chemistry major, I would probably have ended up in applied mathematics, or working as a data scientist in quant trading.
Then, during medical school at NYU, if I hadn’t enjoyed an elective in radiology so much, I would likely have become a trauma surgeon or ER physician.
During residency, if I hadn’t helped a friend apply to business school, I probably would have found a full-time role working as a musculoskeletal radiologist for the next thirty years. After business school, if I had accepted the director-level job offer at a private equity firm, instead of heading off to San Francisco and Edinburgh to build technical skills, I’d likely be working full-time at a VC or PE firm now.
It all goes to prove that life is often entirely unpredictable, a series of opportunities, mistakes and choices made which can take us in all sorts of interesting directions.
What initially sparked your interest in medicine/healthcare?
Because I started so young, I actually didn’t really know what I was doing when applying to medical school. I appreciated the positive impact that physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers had in taking care of my grandfather, who had recently passed away at the time after suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years; but I’m not sure I knew enough at the time to fully appreciate this decision to pursue medicine.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?
My chemistry professor at George Washington University (GWU), Dr. Theodore Perros, who encouraged me to apply to college while in 8th grade. Due to the Johns Hopkins CTY Talent Search for 7th graders, I was permitted to take one class at a nearby university. This class turned out to be General Chemistry at GWU, taught by Dr. Perros.
I was the first student in many years to score 100s on Dr. Perros’ exams, and thus he heavily encouraged me to apply directly to college. Thanks to his very strong recommendations and support, GWU went so far as to have me interview with President Stephen Trachtenberg, and I started at GWU as a Chemistry major. Without Dr. Perros, I would have gone on a very different life trajectory.
Who inspires you?
I’m really inspired by Bill and Melinda Gates and their efforts to provide improved healthcare and reduce extreme poverty across the globe, and to seek to expand access to education and IT resources. This is what I think we should all be doing – helping to make our world a better place, contributing our resources and time to reduce inequality and provide opportunities to more of our fellow human beings.
As we push forward in our pursuit of the future of AI, we must not forget those who are being left behind. As many studies have found, technological innovation tends to rapidly increase societal inequality, and also contributes to a number of perhaps unintended negative effects, ranging from increased dependence on credit to worsening political partisanship. When we push toward the future, we have the responsibility to make sure we lift everyone up in the process. We must find effective ways to address and fix the issues and problems in our society, and we must make these strategies self-sustaining so that they make a positive difference to society long after we are gone.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m not sure if it makes sense to go back and rate prior achievements. I prefer to focus on achieving new things, making a positive difference for society. But I do think a mindset of abiding curiosity, interest in personal growth, and openness to new experiences is really what helps most.
What’s been your biggest disappointment?
Failures and disappointments are mostly opportunities for learning and growth. In our last start-up, which provided portable smart battery networks across cities for recharging phones, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the right market timing for us to succeed in rolling out the network across more cities. Nor the right technological and investor timing for us to succeed in infrared wireless charging. But as a start-up founder and aspiring leader, it was definitely an opportunity for significant growth and development.
What’s your greatest fear?
To not take the chance to make a positive difference; to sit back and do nothing. I’m not all that thrilled about spiders either.
Greatest challenge overcome?
I’d say building personal discipline and consistency is one of the hardest challenges on a daily basis – making sure you’re changing things for the better, day by day, week by week, and year by year. If you fall down or take a break for a day or for a week, accept that you’ve done so, and make sure you get back up and keep moving forward the next day or the next week.
This applies to most facets of life – whether in personal fitness and nutrition, in building a start-up, in learning new things, or in building a relationship and raising a family.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
This might be a bit random, but there’s a quote from Dorothy Gilman’s “Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish” that I’ve always found helpful:
“She laughed aloud. How difficult it was to be a human being, and how difficult to be consistent. She comforted herself by remembering that Emerson had called consistency the hobgoblin of small minds, and having thus scolded and consoled herself she walked happily upstairs ….”
What advice would you give to someone starting out in a career in medicine/healthcare?
Figure out what it is you enjoy in the field of medicine, and do more of that. Don’t forget to take a step back at least once a month, and look at the bigger picture – what do you enjoy, what makes you unhappy (and how can you reduce or automate those things in your life), what do you want to prioritize, what do you want to learn, and what changes can you make? The cumulative effect of these incremental steps is remarkable.
What would you tell your younger self?
Take some time to appreciate the journey of life, stress out a bit less, remember to keep reading new books, and keep learning to be happy with who you are. Oh, and go outdoors more.
What keeps you awake at night?
I actually sleep pretty well most nights although building a start-up can be stressful. It helps to intentionally and consistently practice leaving work at work. Even if you’re working from home, which most of us are doing during this COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I have a sweet tooth. As a teenager, I was 60-70 pounds overweight but by focusing on nutrition and working out in the years since, I’ve been able to get in better shape. It helps to bake high-protein desserts using sugar alcohols like erythritol or stevia, protein cheesecakes using cottage cheese, Greek yogurt and crushed almond crust instead of cream cheese and Graham crackers.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Each day, find a bit of time to appreciate that you are alive, and find ways to be thankful for the many blessings you have and the people you know and love. Don’t focus on the stuff you don’t have or the daily news that you can’t yet change. In short, worry less, thank others more.
If you could edit your past what would you change or do differently?
My past has led me to become who I am today – and I do also tend to ascribe to a more deterministic view of quantum mechanics – so I’m not sure I’d change anything too drastically.
Although that said, I could have spent less time watching YouTube and Netflix, playing video games, or stressing out about the daily news and more time learning new things like firmware coding and more electrical engineering while running our last hardware start-up. It would have helped a great deal!
What are you most excited about regarding the future?
There’s so much each of us can do to make a difference in our world. What can we each do to make the biggest positive impact? And how do we plan and build upon that path today?
Now click here as Jeff answers the five questions he’s most often asked about AI and radiology