Connections  Career Paths in Biomedical Informatics
Jonathan Lustgarten, PhD, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine; Senior Biomedical Informatics Specialist, VCA, Inc.
Trained as a predoctoral fellow at University of Pittsburgh

Jonathan Lustgarten got a master’s in bioinformatics and a PhD in biomedical informatics, before proceeding to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian. He is currently using his bioinformatics training in working as senior biomedical informatics specialist at one of the country’s largest veterinary hospital companies.

Dreaming of Becoming a Vet

Born in North Bergen County, New Jersey, Jonathan Lustgarten had many interests. He loved sports, animals, the outdoors, geology, paleontology, and computers. He grew up wanting to become a veterinarian and as a child even did research on endangered species.

In high school, Jonathan was fascinated by biology and computers, and was first exposed to biomedical informatics. An advisor suggested that he consider Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where he could continue studying biology and computers. At CMU, Jonathan majored in computational biology and minored in bio-organic chemistry, preparing himself for veterinary school.

In contemplating his post-college plans, Jonathan explored applying to veterinary schools. He found that the acceptance rate of undergrads was only about 2%. He also found that applicants to vet school with a master’s or a PhD had more than a 30% acceptance rate.

Based on his interest in informatics and to increase chances of getting into veterinary school, Jonathan decided to get a master’s in bioinformatics at the University of Pittsburgh, followed by a PhD in biomedical informatics. Jonathan’s desire for further education in biomedical informatics was driven by his deep interest in data and by the interdisciplinary nature of biomedical informatics.

“I realized that biomedical informatics was a giant sandbox; it was all these different areas coming together. That is something I love.”

While at Pitt, Jonathan came to realize the breadth of biomedical informatics. He was focused on machine learning, artificial intelligence, the application of biomedical data, and informatics extraction. His thesis involved working with a professor on ALS research, developing an algorithm to predict ALS in the same family. This algorithm enabled predicting ALS, in some instances, earlier than clinical science.

Upon completing his PhD, Jonathan applied to veterinary school. Ironically, based on his PhD and expertise in biomedical informatics, he had offers to teach at multiple veterinary schools, including some that didn’t accept him as a student. He was firm in not wanting to teach at a vet school, but wanting to become a vet. He was ultimately accepted to veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Taking Biomedical Informatics to Veterinary Medicine

Beginning veterinary school with a master’s and PhD in bioinformatics provided Jonathan with a unique perspective. He was attuned to the massive amount of data being generated, but not being analyzed or used. Jonathan was excited about being able to access data in veterinary medicine, derive value from this data, provide better care for animals, and improve the operations of veterinary hospitals.

“As I went through [veterinary school] I started realizing that the massive wealth of data that veterinary medicine was generating really had no one to work on it.”

Upon completing veterinary school, Jonathan worked as a practicing vet, which he has continued to do on a part-time basis. He also worked as director of veterinary informatics for a group of pet hospitals, and is current senior biomedical informatics specialist at VCA, which is owned by Mars Pet Health. Mars owns about 10% of all veterinary hospitals in the US, and created this informatics job specifically for Jonathan.

VCA’s goal is to empower Jonathan to improve the organization’s electronic medical record and use data to make veterinarians more efficient, reduce vets’ workload, and conduct research.

“We’re crafting a new vision for what the electronic medical record can be. . . . Ideally, everything I’m doing will affect the clinician.”

An example of the power of an integrated electronic medical record occurred when some dogs appeared to become sick after consuming contaminated dog treats made by a company in China. Using this information, it was possible to go back to dog owners to ask, "What treats are you feeding your dog?" This quickly confirmed that the treats were to blame. Vets could then treat these dogs and could warn other pet owners not to feed their dogs these contaminated treats. Using the electronic system, Jonathan conducted data mining to look across VCA to see dogs that appeared to have been diagnosed with a specific syndrome.

As the amount of data continues to grow, Jonathan feels the need will grow in veterinary medicine for more people with informatics tools and expertise. He encouraged those interested in informatics to not shy away from the veterinary world, but to look for organizations that are open to the idea of using informatics.

Trainee information current as of 2019.