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Shauna Overgaard, MHI

Current Affiliation

PhD Candidate, Health Informatics, University of Minnesota


Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS), University of Minnesota, Duluth
Master of Health Informatics, University of Minnesota

How do I describe my work to those outside the field

My work investigates brain structure and function by combining different types of brain scans and genetic data. I do this using cool programming technologies, biostatistics methods, and computer programming. I try to make use of the plethora of data that we have by working to combine them in ways that make sense and provide new insight.

Years of experience:

About 8 years.

Why Informatics? 

I enjoy abstract and challenging brain games and there isn’t a more stimulating puzzle than the very plastic biological mechanism of encryption and decoding the brain. The realization that I could combine imaging and informatics struck when I started working in a neuroimaging lab for a highly innovative and even more highly energetic PI, Dr. Kelvin Lim. He was ahead of his time and had already programmed a php – MySQL database, using a Python-backed Django interface for clinical data entry and asked me to handle his genomic data building on his structure. At the time, I didn’t know Python or SQL, so Dr. Lim dropped several books on my desk and instructed me to “learn, then.” As it turned out, I loved programming almost as much as I loved neuroimaging so I’ve continued to pursue this combination full-force. Further, my first exposure to what was then a cool new technique, diffusion tensor imaging analysis, was through Dr. Lim and our colleagues at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research. I lucked out majorly because recently, the CMRR was one of two main acquisition sites for the NIH-Blueprint dataset which has a huge DTI component, the Human Connectome Project. These are now the data I am using for my dissertation and I even get to have one of the resident DTI experts on my dissertation committee – Dr. Christophe Lenglet.

What are your ambitions? At the end of your career, what do you hope to have accomplished?

I would really like to add to the foundational understanding of the human brain and to pinpoint mechanisms that protect us from neuronal stress and injury. I’d like to think that figuring out how to prevent brain disease starts by understanding how to promote and preserve the healthy brain. There is a ton of advanced neuroimaging data accessible to us as informaticians and we have several tools at our disposal, but they are typically applied individually. Part of my goal is to combine these tools into a solid pipeline to either get better solutions or a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the brain. I’m also stoked about building the subfield of neuroimaging informatics.

Who or what are your “key sources” in the informatics field?

At this point, because I am a PhD candidate, I really rely on my dissertation committee members, Dr. Lael Gatewood, Dr. Gyorgy Simon, Dr. Prashanthi Vemuri, Dr. Christophe Lenglet, and Dr. Weihua Guan. They are absolutely key. One of my favorite parts about my dissertation is that it includes people from different fields, but they all straddle the informatics field itself. My training program at the University of Minnesota, The Institute for Health Informatics, offers excellent classes in-house, has very knowledgeable faculty, and does a great job of helping students network and pursue their own research niche. We’ve got a strong student group at the IHI with some real forward thinkers, so conversations with these folks can also be a key to problem solving. JAMIA, JBI, and I guess several neuroimaging and stats journals are also my go-to’s, particularly when I’m digging deeper into an analytic method.

Articles that spotlight my research interest

  • Kochunov, P., N. Jahanshad, D. Marcus, A. Winkler, et al (2015). "Heritability of fractional anisotropy in human white matter: a comparison of Human Connectome Project and ENIGMA-DTI data." Neuroimage 111: 300-311.
  • Vemuri, P., T. G. Lesnick, S. A. Przybelski, M. Machulda, D. S. Knopman, M. M. Mielke, R. O. Roberts, Y. E. Geda, W. A. Rocca, R. C. Petersen and C. R. Jack, Jr. (2014). "Association of lifetime intellectual enrichment with cognitive decline in the older population." JAMA Neurol 71(8): 1017-1024.

  • Hagmann, P., O. Sporns, N. Madan, L. Cammoun, R. Pienaar, V. J. Wedeen, R. Meuli, J. P. Thiran and P. E. Grant (2010). "White matter maturation reshapes structural connectivity in the late developing human brain." Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107(44): 19067-19072.

Hobbies/Interests outside AMIA

I’m a mother of three smart and hilarious little girls. We like to joke around, tickle, and spend lots of time exploring outside. And, ya know, I love doing the same things with my brilliant and supportive husband, Josh. I’m also addicted to running. So there’s that. I’m a member of a great running group called FFAR….we really do run far, but more often we take jokes too far!

AMIA is important to me because

It just makes sense to work toward improvement as a diverse group. There is a real team mentality at AMIA, and the boards and working groups are packed with intelligent, creative, and kind folks. We have some stellar up-and-coming informatics professionals in the student working group. I’m passionate about making sure that nothing holds them back and that we have an organized and solid pipeline to help our students thrive. The tools and relationships derived from AMIA, I believe, contribute greatly to the stronghold of our careers.

I am involved with AMIA

Currently, I am Chair Elect of the Student Working Group where recently I’ve been involved with some of the coordination of student volunteers for other informatics opportunities that have been presented to our working group. I serve on the Women in AMIA Steering Committee, and I’m a proud member of the Biomedical Imaging Informatics Working Group. I may creep on other working groups through the discussion forum and list-serve, but I don’t identify as “that breather on the phone.”

Why I became involved with Women in AMIA

My AMIA mentor, Jessie Tenenbaum, approached me about serving on the Women in AMIA Steering Committee as director of social media. I can’t say no to Jessie because she’s outstanding and knows what she’s doing, but I was also intrigued by an organized opportunity to promote a platform for networking, mentoring, discussion, and education specifically for women.

My role in Women in AMIA is

As named by the group, I am the ‘Social Media Director’ – which is a lot different from my daily work coding and staring at brains. I’ve begun strategizing with the steering committee on ways to identify opportunities for women and how best to help our members achieve their career goals, by pointing to appropriate resources and opportunities for advancement. I’ve also begun managing the #WomenInAMIA for Twitter. The idea is that all those with interest can work to pull and compile articles that showcase the accomplishments of women and to encourage women’s leadership and productivity in the field. We need our AMIA men to help out with this. It’s truly a team effort and we want to create a strong and welcoming group to support all women in AMIA.

How joining Women in AMIA has changed my experience as a member

I love watching and learning from strong and brilliant female leaders in their element, so in committee meetings, I’ve generally felt as though I’ve gotten a backstage pass to a rock show. Yeah, I guess you could say joining Women in AMIA has made the organization all the more exciting for me. Being a member of this group has also given me additional drive to pursue my career goals and the confidence to step up and show myself – in personality, in effort, innovation, and work ethic. Never to hold back.

The goals of Women in AMIA that I hope to achieve are

To identify and grow opportunities for women in AMIA, aid women in AMIA to reach their goals and advance their careers, and to promote equal opportunity and equal treatment of women in our field. I hope to contribute to the achievement of these goals in part by helping women – particularly young women – overcome internal obstacles, making available opportunities visible, encouraging mentorship, particularly in STEM and early career development, and by increasing women’s representation in media through #WomenInAMIA. So, for example, what if a reason why women don’t win as many awards as men is because they are less likely to be nominated? We as Women in AMIA can change that by putting our heads together and identifying eligible women for these slots. What if little girls don’t go into STEM as often as little boys, thereby missing out on the opportunity to become informaticians, engineers, and neuroradiologists, only because they don’t see women in these roles? By building an online presence, and showcasing female scientists, Women in AMIA can help change that as well. What if women don’t apply for leadership positions because they lack leadership experience and the confidence to pursue these roles? Women in AMIA can assist by creating and growing leadership opportunities for women in a supportive environment with training and mentorship so that they feel equipped to go for that potentially career-altering move up.

It may surprise people to know

That in 8th grade my nemesis and I won the grand prize of four computers for our teeny private Mennonite school for designing the “computer of the future”, which was a national challenge spearheaded by Macintosh Computers. Our design was a small halved apple that featured a miniature keyboard from which you could read the news, take pictures, and send messages to your mom. Our tagline was “Breakfast in one hand, the world in the other”. Then, a few years later, Mac squeezed out the iPhone. You’re welcome, Steve Jobs. Also, I can perform Celtic bagpipe-sounding tunes by plugging my nose and tapping on my neck.