Anru Zhang, PhD: Using Data Science to Improve Patient Care 

Angru Zhang, PhD


Anru Zhang, PhD, hopes to give physicians another tool to treat disease and improve health – by turning patients’ electronic medical records into a treasure trove of information. 

“What if we could use data collected from a patient today to inform and improve care for that patient tomorrow?” said Zhang. “It’s an exciting opportunity made possible by advances in data science.”  

Medical records’ primary purpose is to inform continuity of care and satisfy insurance requirements, but one of the most exciting facets of data science is that it strives to take the copious amounts of data available — in this case held in medical records — and extract new information.  

Recruited to Duke in 2021, Zhang is applying his previous work in designing statistical methodologies and data science to extract data from electronic health records to help detect disease and improve patient treatment plans.  

Zhang is the inaugural recipient of the Eugene Anson Stead Jr., MD, and E. Harvey Estes Jr., MD, Associate Professorship in the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics in the School of Medicine, established by William “Bill” Stead, AB’70, MD’74, HS’73-’77, and Janet Stead in honor of William Edward “Ed” Hammond, PhD, professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and director of the Duke Center for Health Informatics at Duke University. 

Ed Hammond, PhD
Ed Hammond, PhD

The professorship is currently named for the late Eugene Stead, Bill’s father and the influential longtime chair of the Department of Medicine at Duke, and E. Harvey Estes, a cardiologist and the first chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences and will be renamed for Hammond once he leaves active employment at Duke. 

Bill and Janet Stead created the professorship in the hope that each recipient would emulate Hammond’s example of building bridges between disciplines. Bill Stead and Hammond, with others, developed one of the very first electronic medical record systems here at Duke in the 1970s. 

“The real motivation for the gift was to honor Ed in a way that, in essence, creates a pipeline of young Eds,” said Bill Stead.  

Zhang is a fitting recipient of the inaugural professorship, said David Page, PhD, chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics. 

“Mid-career endowed professorships are an outstanding recruiting tool, as superstar faculty may be more moveable earlier in their careers. In some cases these professorships come with a theme, and as a result they even influence the direction of an outstanding scholar's work,” said Page. “All of the above are true in Anru Zhang's case. Anru is a superstar associate professor who has won many prominent international awards.” 

Zhang received his undergraduate degree in math from Peking University and a PhD in statistics at the University of Pennsylvania. As an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he used this background to focus on developing methodologies to advance the study of statistics.  

Electronic health data has enormous potential as a health care tool, Zhang said. First, though, several thorny problems need to be solved, including improving the ability to separate meaningful information from background noise in the data and protecting patient privacy.  

It was this opportunity to engage with clinical and health researchers who need data science applications that drew Zhang to Duke — this and the chance to be mentored by Bill Stead and Hammond, among others. 

“Duke has a strong interdisciplinary focus in its problem-solving where different departments collaborate together,” Zhang said. “It’s the perfect place for me to use new tools and my expertise to solve real world problems.” 

Wendy Graber is a Senior News Writer/Producer for the School of Medicine’s Office of Strategic Communications.

October 12, 2022