Tiffani J. Bright, PhD: (M11)

Tiffani J. Bright is a consultant with focus on bridging informatics and health IT. She earned a bachelor’s of arts degree in sociology from the College of William and Mary in 2001, a bachelor’s of science degree in information systems from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2004, and a doctorate in biomedical informatics from Columbia University in 2009. Her dissertation work concentrated on the development and evaluation of an ontology-based clinical decision support system for appropriate antibiotic prescribing. In 2011 she completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University within the Department of Community and Family Medicine. She specializes in clinical decision support and knowledge management systems, user needs assessment, and usability evaluation. Research areas include evaluating the adoption and effectiveness of health IT, implementing policies pertaining to health IT, and disseminating findings to clinicians in order to improve the quality of care and health outcomes. She is the first known African American female to obtain a doctorate in the field of biomedical informatics.

I have been blessed with a very supportive family. My parents have always supported me in following my dreams and they sacrificed to make opportunities possible- they are my rock. Throughout the years, they really have become my best friends. There’s nothing that I can’t or don’t share with them. And because I trust their judgment and wisdom, I still seek their guidance on matters from career decisions to financial decisions. While my parents do not profess to know everything, they are honest, they are great problem-solvers, and they have more life experience than I do. It’s because of our great relationship that I still respect and consult them. I also have a fantastic support group that includes a great older brother and sister-in-law—I can always count on them. I have several aunts, uncles, cousins, and godparents who are a part of my extended family and they have all rallied around in support of me and my dreams. My parents instilled a lot of great principles in both my brother and me and I can honestly say that we strive to live by them daily. If I were to choose the most important principle, it would be to love God with all my heart and to trust Him completely. That really guides the rest of the principles: loving and respecting people; sharing of financial resources, time, abilities, and talents as in volunteering; being a hard worker; lastly remembering always that one’s good reputation is precious.

After graduating with one BA and considering the pursuit of a second undergraduate degree, I was faced with a most challenging dilemma. There were several people outside my family who felt comfortable expressing their disagreement with my decision. Their opinion was since I had already obtained one “undergraduate” degree, why would I “go back” and waste time to get another undergraduate degree… why do it again? But that’s just the thing- I was confident that it’s never too late to change your direction. I had to accept the fact that my first love had always been science, technology and math, even though I went with a different career path leading to an undergraduate degree in the field of sociology. In retrospect, the problem was that I had not seriously given ample thought and career exploration to what type of career opportunities would be available from this field of study. Furthermore, how was this degree going to fit my personal interests and professional desires? How did I lose that direction for a little while, and what was I going to do about it? So, my senior year of college presented a critical moment and I found myself at a crossroad of being true to myself or just going with the flow; staying where I was since that was the expectation of others and it certainly was the easiest solution. Yet there was some driving force inside compelling me to make this critical life decision at this particular moment in time with no regrets! To resolve this dilemma, a lot of research, self-exploration, and informational interviews were needed to quickly create my next path while at the same time completing what I had started- my first undergraduate degree. I had to decide whether I would stay in the box that I had created because the expected path was x, y, and z… or if I was going to find the inner strength and courage to veer off that path and change direction; creating a new path that was true to my lifetime interest and passion? Let me be very honest in saying this was a trying time as I struggled with the final decision. I really wanted to share this with you because you too may someday find yourself wondering if you have gone too far in one direction and that it is too late to change directions. You may find yourself on a path that no longer reflects who you are or where you desire to go and it’s never too late to pause, reassess, and back-up if necessary to once again move forward. Making a change in direction should not be perceived as a negative, but rather a growth experience. For me, nothing was lost as I made a change in my career path because I gained an exciting edge having a wonderful background in sociology from which to launch out into science and technology. It was the right move for me and now I am so blessed to have an even broader base with a different perspective to problem-solving as it relates to science and my specific career focus.

I cannot express anything that in particular attracted me to the STEM major, but it has been a good fit for me because of my curious nature and enjoyment of problem-solving. As a child I was always fascinated with science. In elementary school, I would often choose a scientist for career-related assignments. For one of those assignments we were required to draw on a poster board what we wanted to be when we grew up. I recall my bold caption was “I AM GOING TO BECOME A SCIENTIST.” It is so amusing to reflect on a drawing of myself with thick purple eyeglasses, a white lab coat, and a glass beaker positioned behind a lab bench. Flash-forward to 2010, and thank God, the purple eyeglasses are gone and there’s no white coat, beaker, or lab bench— but I am a scientist. My parents supported that career interest by purchasing various science kits, allowing me to tinker with our first home computer, shuttling me back and forth to school science activities and university-sponsored science workshops. They were also instrumental with networking on my behalf- talking to co-workers about my interests, which often led to opportunities to meet local scientists. They supported every idea and interest that I had in the name of science—from yeast fermentation experiments overtaking the kitchen countertops to creating a hydroelectric greenhouse in our formal dining room which was supposed to be used for those special family dinners and holiday feasts. My parents really made the difference in nurturing my vision –my dream.

I can sometimes be a workaholic. It’s not the best approach and it definitely goes against my general principle of having a balanced life. However, I am driven by a sense of great satisfaction in doing things exceptionally well. Doing less than 100% means just doing enough to get by and that’s not my style. To do things exceptionally and successfully requires both commitment and sacrifice, I believe. Going through the dissertation process, for example, required sacrifice. It’s part of the admission price to “ride the ride.” Most of my graduate experience was spent working on several “cool” projects, which were great. I learned a lot, but because I had explored so many of my interests, when it came time to the dissertation phase, I did not have a cohesive research story. I am interested in EHRs, so I spent a few years on that and I was also interested in semantics and natural language processing (NLP), so that was a summer and ½ a year there. It wasn’t a waste of time because I am an explorer and it helped me to solidify my specific area of research. While it was a great learning experience, it meant having to work a bit harder given the time constraints to ensure that my chosen dissertation was a solid problem I could explore from several angles. In other words, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t lack a thing. And so my need for excellence, not perfection, surfaced as I decided my project was going to have the weight as if I started nurturing it from day one! Some students spend their graduate experience building on previous experiments or carving out a project from their advisor’s work, but I chose to do differently— although my dissertation advisor had several great and viable projects for me to work on, modify, and make my own. I really wanted to create something that was original- just Tiffani’s. And so my advisor understood this and supported my dream and my desire to be 100% creative. This was just my preference and I believed that I was up to the challenges of developing a solid project from scratch. I spent a lot of time brainstorming on what I wanted my dissertation project to accomplish—what technology would I use, what problem would it address and what would it contribute? I was so fortunate in that my advisor was always right there, lending her expertise and wisdom to make sure that I didn’t set out to try and conquer the entire field. It was an iterative process and in the end, I accomplished my dream of crafting my own project.

Pursuing a college degree was not an option for me. I have always dreamed BIG, and I realized towards the end of my undergraduate program that I could only be successful by going all the way to the top in getting the highest level of education available to me. Doing so would ensure more career opportunities and options. So, once I decided to pursue a PhD, my motivation really was that I could not quit. During both the good and especially the challenging days, I would often say to myself, “I’ve come too far; I can’t quit… keep moving forward.” I set my mind on the task and I was committed to see it through. While I cannot point to a specific individual who influenced me to pursue my degrees, I was nurtured by my parents, family, and teachers over the years and they afforded me many opportunities. I was also greatly inspired and encouraged by my Meyerhoff family to make that PhD a reality.

Two of my mentors drilled this statement into my head until I grabbed hold of it for myself, so let me share it with you. First, you have to own your degree. So, at whatever stage you find yourself, remember that you have to “own” your degree -high school, associates, bachelors, PhD, MD, PharmD, MBA—you name it. My graduate studies provided great learning experiences, but the PhD wasn’t really tangible to me-I studied fascinating classes, conducted research, and participated in study groups which, by the way, were essential—so form a group or either join one. It was not until I passed my final qualifying exam that I moved from a doctoral “student” to doctoral “candidate” and the “light” turned on for me, and I GOT IT! I realized there was no longer a structured path to spoon-feed and guide me through this doctoral journey. I had an amazing and supportive advisor and mentor who would have led me down the path if I needed or desired that, but I wanted to “own” the end product- my PhD. I was truly on my way, but I could only move forward towards the completion of my PhD by taking “ownership”! How would I do that and why was that so important? During this dissertation phase all of the graduate requirements had been fulfilled, classes taken, exams passed, but whether I left that department as Tiffani or “Dr.” Tiffani was now all up to me! I came to understand what was involved in accepting all of the rights and responsibilities for shaping my destiny during this process. There was a great deal of autonomy and that meant, for instance, I could come and go to the office as I pleased or I could work from home. There was so much freedom and yet, there was also the responsibility to balance the privilege of freedom with the understanding that if I did not show up for work, then the work would not get done and I would remain idle on my path. So, one thing I did to own my PhD was to become my own boss- demanding accountability for my time and completed tasks to help fight procrastination. I controlled when I would complete my degree and how— just barely making it across the finish line or either running with a confident and even pace making it look easy. This was what I was doing in this process of owning my degree. So, my advice to you would be to own it, guard it, and treasure your degree. It’s no one else’s—it’s yours! No one else will care for it the way you can, so make the decisions and hold on to it— fight for it!

Secondly, perseverance is your friend! Making any kind of contribution to your field, family, or community will require sacrifice on your part. You will have to figure out your personal long-range goals and be able to firmly hold them in your mind. This will help sustain you on those days when you have put your best foot forward, and yet the results might not seem to reflect all your efforts and hard work. Remember this is a journey, but it starts with a vision of your future and what is to come. As I was engaged in daily dissertation research tasks, I sometimes had to walk away from a task to reassess and gather my thoughts. It is not unusual during this process to encounter a roadblock and you will need to determine another approach to solving the problem. Remember this is a life journey; a process that will take time so accept that with both joy and determination. Another issue is there will be times when you might get tired—very tired and wonder if you can keep pressing forward. After 12.5 consecutive years of college with no summer breaks except for one, I got tired. But, I paused, took a minute to regroup, appreciated how far I had already come and looked to my sources of inner strength and outside support- I continued moving forward. Just don’t stop until you arrive at your desired destination! Lastly, remember that there will always be critics, so learn how to let negative comments slide off your back rather than internalize them. Outsiders didn’t know where I was going; they didn’t know my potential and they didn’t know my desires. In a world where African American women are faced with so many cares and responsibilities, I would recommend that you still take ownership of the gifts and skills that you have developed; that you own your destiny in spite of the critics. At times you might read or hear about the media labels. For example, one week it’s all about the “struggling Black single mother”; while the next week it’s all about the “overeducated single Black woman.” To stay on course, it is so important to be informed, but not influenced by every opinion from every outside source. There will be some challenges because you are Black, but there will also be challenges because you are a woman. Just remember that the world doesn’t know your potential and they don’t know your vision for where you are going. When you make your decisions rather than allowing society, teachers, family, or friends to do so, in the end, you will look back on your life, my friend, with a sense of fulfillment, and you will be able to say, that it was what it was. I suggested that you take what you are given, make the best decision(s) and own it, regardless of where the path takes you or the challenges you may encounter. Be strong, focused, and persistent, and do not allow criticism or skepticism to influence or dictate your path. In doing so, you will have peace in knowing your path is the one you choose. These were the little gold nuggets that helped me especially on the last leg of the dissertation process. And so for the countless nights that I didn’t get a full night’s sleep, and had to settle for just a short nap at my office desk because I had work to do, I still did my work with joy- because I owned my degree – my PhD.

This is a great time to be in health informatics and it’s exciting to watch all of the changes that are occurring. What I am currently working on as a postdoctoral fellow will be used to define the funding and research agenda of a large research organization, serve as a guide to stakeholders who are considering the purchase or development of health information technology (IT), and even potentially shape some of the federal health IT policies. This isn’t a time to be on the sidelines. Health IT is exploding and it’s crazy! If you are interested in medicine, computer science, and information science, this is a great time to look into this field. It’s predicted that there will be a shortage of trained workers, so check it out!

I use math and technology (specifically a smartphone device) to plan out my day and ensure that I am using my time most efficiently on a daily basis. I always refer to my calendar (either on my smartphone or on my computer) before I commit to anything! Using such a device reminds me of scheduled meetings, but I still have to use my math skills to project the amount of time I need to leave the office for meeting. Additionally, I use math skills to help me manage my research projects—from deconstructing one large task into smaller components to projecting completion dates based on how long it has taken in the past to complete a similar task or project. I also use math and technology (software applications) to manage my finances. Lastly, since I enjoy cooking, math skills—especially fractions are key!

My Mentors and Why

The concept of mentoring dates back to Odysseus’ son Telemachus and Mentor- it’s essential to have a mentor who can speak into your life, and it’s equally as important to serve as a mentor. It’s necessary to have several mentors at every stage of your academic and professional journey. Two of my early mentors have seen me blossom from an undergraduate exploring career paths, to receiving my PhD, and now on the verge of completing my postdoctoral fellowship. In addition to having several mentors, your group of mentors should be diverse. Some of my mentors are women, some minorities, some in academia, others in government research, and some others in the private sector. All of my mentors are exceptional and committed people. They are invested in me and they see my potential. As a mentee, it requires time and dedication to nurture those relationships, but anyone who has a great mentor experience will agree that it’s always worth it.

Invent One Thing

I would invent a public school system starting with grades pre-K through the 12th grade where everything including readiness skills would be predicated upon a dream or vision of what career one would like to pursue. The curriculum content and experience would cluster around career exploration. It would be an on-going journey of many possibilities as each child’s destiny is shaped and nurtured for a purpose-driven life. It would be a curriculum that both challenges and supports the premise that every child is capable, connected, and contributing to society as a solid citizen. Realistically, different career interests would be explored each nine-weeks marking period and there would be a mentorship shadowing component to acquaint children with the world of science, technology, and math in the world of work. Arts and history would also be integrated into the curriculum with emphasis upon living, and learning in the world of work he/she dreams about.

Book I'm reading

Honestly, my dissertation was pretty intense and so has my postdoctoral fellowship experience been thus far. It’s rare for me not to be reading a textbook, an industry journal, or Newsweek! While my degree is complete, I’m interested in pursuing another degree, so I’m using my ‘free’ time to read a few books to gain some insight to help me decide what that might be. Outside of textbooks, professional journals and newsletters, however, I’ve got two books on my nightstand that I am reading: 1) Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution. Being that we are living in a wireless world and I spend 12-15 hours on a computer and often surrounded by other wireless devices, I am interested in learning about how I can minimize my exposure to electromagnetic fields while still enjoying these devices. 2) Confident Investing: A Wealth Building Guide for Women. I am at a stage in my life where I really want to increase my portfolio and manage my finances to accommodate my lifestyle, prepare for my retirement, and contribute generously as I invest into helping dreams come to life for others. Although I have had this book for a few years, I am just having a chance to really give it my full attention. This book provides a great primer to investing and offers practical advice to help become a good steward over one’s financial assets and resources.

More about : Tiffani J. Bright, PhD: (M11)

Dr. Bright has been a Postdoctoral Associate with The Department of Community and Family Medicine at Duke University since 2009. She received her PhD in biomedical informatics from Columbia University, where her research focused on the development and evaluation of an ontology-based clinical decision support system (CDSS) to assist with the appropriate use of antibiotic prescribing. Prior to pursuing her graduate degree, Dr. Bright received her BA degree in sociology from The College of William & Mary in her BS in information systems and technology from The University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2004. Her research interests focus on CDSS, ontologies, electronic health records (EHR), and human-computer interaction. Her personal interests include attending sport and cultural art events, traveling, herb and vegetable gardening, cooking, scrapbooking, and she is also a roller coaster fanatic!

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