Not everyone makes a best friend in college who will become a trusted ally and colleague for years to come.
Megan Hiestand and Josie Lamp, two graduates of the College of Health Solutions in 2018, found this kind of friendship the day before their very first class at Arizona State University, creating a bond that has helped them throughout a challenging and one-of-a-kind degree program, and one that continued as they moved on to the next phase of their careers.
Josie Lamp (left) and Megan Hiestand met at ASU in freshman year and formed an instant bond as students in the nation’s first undergraduate biomedical informatics program.
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An instant connection
Lamp and Hiestand came to ASU to join the nation’s first-ever biomedical informatics undergraduate program. They met at an orientation mix designed to give the small cohort a chance to get to know each other and their instructors. While most freshmen attend social events where shorts match the dress code and the food is usually something crunchy you buy from a bag, their experience was quite different. They boarded a bus for the Mayo Clinic campus in Scottsdale where they mingled with Mayo doctors and College of Health Solutions faculty.
“It was super fancy,” Lamp said. “I remember being very intimidated,” but she also remembers thinking Hiestand seemed friendly and approachable.
“We hit it off right from the start,” Hiestand said.
Lamp agreed, adding that the two were almost inseparable from day one. “We took many tough courses throughout our undergraduate careers,” she said. And in their four years at ASU, they helped each other through many of them.
Biomedical informatics is an interdisciplinary major, requiring students to take courses related to clinical medicine, chemistry, biology, federal regulations, computer science, and more. These students carry a heavy cognitive load.
“I was pre-med all through my undergrad,” Hiestand said. “While I was taking science classes – organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics – Josie was working her way up in computer science classes that were much harder and more rigorous. Our interests complemented each other. We were able to help each other with classes that the other person might not enjoy as much.
They often studied together in a windowless room in the basement of the Hayden Library, and both women count those hours of study among their fondest memories of ASU. Together they worked until the wee hours of the morning, and Lamp remembers bursting into laughter because the two had “probably been studying for too long,” she said. “We were tired, but we were still laughing and enjoying life.”
A new degree
Biomedical computing is the reason Lamp chose to become a Sun Devil.
“I studied computer science in high school and loved it, but I also love working with people and biology,” she said.
After learning that biomedical informatics encompassed all of her interests, Lamp also discovered that ASU had just launched an undergraduate program in biomedical informatics and that she could be part of its inaugural class. She chose ASU because it was the only school in the country with this highly specialized undergraduate degree at the time.
Hiestand found out about the major accidentally during an orientation, and it happened on the day the students were registering for classes. She was enrolled as a biochemistry major, but when an orientation speaker talked about the various majors on offer, including biomedical informatics, she knew she had to change direction.
“I changed majors, dropped all my classes, and signed up immediately,” Hiestand said. “I always joke that I set a record for switching majors because I was officially in biochemistry for about half a day.”
The field of biomedical informatics is booming. ASU’s program focuses on four areas: clinical informatics which uses information technology and data science to improve healthcare delivery and patient outcomes; public/population health; biomedical research, including genomics and proteomics; and imaging, a biomedical informatics track that looks at data from things like MRIs and CT scans.
Although the field is large, the first cohort of biomedical informatics majors was quite small – around two dozen students.
“Even though ASU is big, we had our own little corner of the university,” Lamp said. “The caliber of the faculty was amazing, and I really felt like the program was there to help us.”
Hiestand agreed, “We were a small group, and I got to know my teachers on a much deeper and more meaningful level than the relationship I had with teachers outside of my degree program.”
Improve patient care
As ASU students, Hiestand and Lamp were conducting research at the end of their freshman year, and Lamp contributed a handful of academic papers before earning his bachelor’s degree. Both women were also part of ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College.
After graduating, Hiestand got a Fulbright scholarship and taught in Malaysia until COVID-19 brought her home. The Fulbright Program is an international academic exchange program sponsored by the US government.
Lamp is currently earning his doctorate in computer science at the University of Virginia, with his studies funded in part by a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship. Lamp was also awarded the prestigious Jefferson Fellowship, UV’s first graduate scholarship.
The duo still talk to each other regularly and also visit each other. When Hiestand was living in San Diego last year, Lamp visited and they took a break from computing to enjoy Disneyland.
At work, Lamp and Hiestand see themselves as translators of sorts, people who contribute to healthcare solutions by overcoming language barriers between software developers or other technologists and clinical staff.
“Biomedical informatics puts you at the intersection of several different fields,” Lamp said. “You have to translate what a clinician needs into something the technologist can use to create a solution.”
Lamp knew she loved research from the first time she was part of it at ASU and hopes to use her doctorate in an academic setting so that research continues to be part of her day-to-day activities. In her current PhD research, Lamp works with patients with advanced heart failure and type 1 diabetes.
“I’m looking to develop better diagnostic systems to help these patients,” she said. “I use machine learning – computational techniques – to understand the relationship between clinical data and patient outcomes.”
Hiestand now works in Wisconsin for Epic Systems Corporation, the largest electronic health records software company in the United States. As a quality manager, she acts as an intermediary between the end users and the developers creating the software.
Her ASU degree is a huge plus for her, she said. “I understand the healthcare system and also learned about different medical coding systems and genomic data. Things like that have been very helpful in my work.
Like most BMI majors, Hiestand and Lamp work every day to improve health outcomes through complex data and information systems. The two women enable medical providers to deliver more effective treatment, with Lamp working on predictive models to advise medical decisions and Hiestand working on medical records that track outcomes.
These two smart, driven women came to ASU with abilities that would have helped them succeed regardless, but their almost instant friendship that freshman year made their academic experiences more manageable and enjoyable for each of them.
And while she’s surely exaggerating, Lamp made a half-joking comment that sums up how important their friendship was then and continues to be today: “I never would have made it without Megan,” she said.