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Diving into Problem Solving in the Informatics Way

Mar 04, 2021

Francine Stirling loves to get creative. Whether it’s finding time to read a good book while staying busy as a mom to three children or juggling full-time work with the challenge of completing graduate school, Stirling thrives on finding solutions. 

Stirling spent ten years as an academic program manager for three different departments at the University of Utah, working with students to advance their educational and professional goals.  Stirling created curriculum and led advising efforts for the Professional Science and Technology Program, the PhD Bioscience Program, and the Biomedical Informatics Department. In these areas, she was surrounded by the latest curriculum and exciting advancements in programming, medical data science, and other information technologies. Eventually, she took note of the encouragement she gave others, and decided to begin her own master’s program in the Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI). 

Working with a wide variety of students and faculty in different specialties, managing team members, and developing complex courses of study meant Stirling already had credible career experience. Her familiarity with classes and requirements needed in the DBMI’s master’s program gave her an edge, but she didn’t feel like she needed a purely scientific background to be successful. While many of her classmates came from science-based majors, her education in communications, and professional management skills, proved to be equal assets. 

 “A bachelor’s degree is important, but it doesn't need to be rooted in technology or science,” Stirling explains. “I felt like my perspective added a lot of value.” 

Stirling initially worried that her technical knowledge might be too weak to excel in her courses, but the curriculum in her track quickly brought her up to speed. 

“Your strengths balance your weaknesses,” Stirling explains. “My background helped me see things in a different light, and I felt my curiosity kick in to tackle the areas I knew less about.” 

The program, much like the data technology industry itself, is nimble. Students can choose from different tracks best suited to their needs and interests. 

Stirling opted for the clinical informatics track, which is a broader area of study. According to Damian Borbolla, MD, MS, and director of the DBMI master’s program, this track gives students a solid knowledge base applicable to many areas in the field such as health systems, information technology companies, and biotech industries. Students build upon foundational skills like database design, clinical decision support, leadership, and health care standards. They leave the program primed to contribute to a workforce focused on data improvement.

The hybrid learning mode featuring both online and in-person classes was an ideal balance of engagement and flexibility for Stirling. 

“The way this master’s program is set up is really accommodating for non-traditional students or those working full-time,” Stirling says. “Making this advancement wouldn't have been an option if I’d had to go to class during the day.” 

After graduation, Stirling capitalized on her professional experience and cutting-edge degree to score a senior management position at Ancestry, a well-known company in the data sciences industry. Ancestry is a leading force in consumer genomics (DNA) testing, connecting users to customized genetic reports, and allowing them to discover detailed information about their family histories. The company stores over 27 billion personal history records and 18 million genetic profiles. This type of sensitive information means maximum data protection is top priority for Stirling and her team. 

Stirling regularly applies her education to seek out innovative solutions for common industry questions like overseeing consumer data storage, customer confidentiality, specialized data pipelines and other safeguards. According to Stirling, students within the DBMI master’s program are given tools that immediately benefit them on the job, whether they’re recent graduates, or seasoned professionals ready to take their knowledge to the next level.

“I’ve learned how to think outside the box to tackle data-driven issues,” Stirling says. “When we encounter an issue, I’m able to see opportunities to improve. I’m constantly inspired and challenged to create ways in which we can compile data more effectively. This type of problem-solving allows for—and motivates—a lot of creativity.”

She says that the technical know-how she gained in the program, such as learning what a data warehouse is or understanding the roles of other skilled professionals, helps her excel in her managerial responsibilities. 

On a daily basis, Stirling leads 40 plus employees and oversees projects from start to finish. This includes coordinating multiple support teams, making sure technical designs have been thoroughly reviewed, evaluating risk management, and keeping initiatives on track. 

“You don’t need an MBA to be relevant in this type of management position,” Borbolla says. “Companies are realizing the benefit of hiring graduates and allowing current employees to enroll in technical career development. The combination of professional experience, domain specific education, and leadership gained through the DBMI master’s program really prepares students to succeed at a higher level in any corporate health or biotech business.” 

“Every company faces issues with data storage and uses,” Stirling agrees. “The DBMI master’s program gave me a complex understanding of both the health care system, and tech companies, from the ground up. I learned how these businesses are built and studied the challenges they encounter. With this education, I really gained the knowledge and background needed to provide context for these challenges. I feel like I can dive into problem solving in modern and original ways.”

“Data science and its application is changing fields in health care and beyond,” Stirling continues. “It’s beneficial for anyone entering the workforce—and the companies they’re working for—to understand data and how to maximize its use. Data science opens a lot of doors. There is so much to explore because of the knowledge we gain from it.”

Are you ready to get creative in your career? For more information on the Department of Biomedical Informatics and corresponding degree programs, please visit the DBMI’s website, or email Robert Barber at