From Chemical Engineering to Computing

Uduak Ndoh, UNC School of Medicine’s new assistant dean for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, says his unique background will help him form fruitful partnerships with faculty.

Uduak Ndoh’s career plans pivoted after a summer internship at a toilet paper factory.

He was nearing the end of his junior year at North Carolina A&T, where he was studying chemical engineering, when recruiters from Kimberly Clark came to campus looking for talented students. Uduak secured an internship and was soon off to Wisconsin to work in a factory that made Scott’s toilet tissue.

“My job that summer was to help figure out a way to make Scott’s a little bit softer,” he said.

After a summer of testing out different ideas, Ndoh said they just made the individual sheets smaller by an inch and put the excess material back into the sheets to make them thicker.

“It wasn’t a great accomplishment in chemical engineering, but it did make the sheets a little softer” he said.

The next summer, after another isolating experience in another factory lab, he decided this kind of work wasn’t for him. As graduation neared, a consulting firm came to campus recruiting for its business technology practice. He jumped in to meet with them, and they offered him a job, his first in technology.

“It all just took off from there,” Ndoh said.

After several years as a consultant, Ndoh joined the academic world, eventually rising to the position of director of Information Technology at the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

Now in his first month as UNC School of Medicine’s assistant dean for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, he’s searching for ways he can help address the School’s complex technology and business process needs.

For our latest Five Questions feature, we sat down with Uduak to discuss how he got here, as well as his immediate and long-term goals in his new position.

What are you most excited about as you begin your time at UNC?

My first few months will be spent listening and trying to figure out the needs of all of the different departments across the School of Medicine. I want to understand their goals and their pain points and get a sense for how we can use our resources to help them achieve what they’re trying to do.

We spend so much time looking backwards, trying to solve the most recent problems, but not really thinking strategically about where we want to go. So I really want to focus our group on being able to do that and figuring out the way that we can provide the most value.

I am also excited to learn more about what the school is doing in medical education, which has not been an area of focus for me in the past.  Medical educators increasingly use technology to supplement their teachings.  My goal is to partner with the school to identify and implement said technologies to help educate medical professionals of the future.

How do you think technology can be an asset to faculty, both in research and the clinic?

I strongly believe that technology is here to amplify what our faculty is doing. One of the reasons that this role was intriguing to me was that I saw some opportunities in the research realm at UNC for partnership and support, and I felt like I could use my background as an asset.

The ideal situation would be for a researcher to come to us at the outset with their problem statement. Then, we can work together to come to the best solution. That may be buying a piece of software off the shelf, or it may mean our developers building something. What I want to avoid as much as possible is a faculty member buying some piece of software that they think is going to solve their problem and then coming to us to fix it when it doesn’t work. If we can be partners from the start, the outcomes will be better for everyone.

You’ve worked in both the corporate world and academia. Do you see any key differences?

During my career as a consultant with Accenture, I worked up and down the East Coast, mostly with “Big Pharma” clients. When my wife decided to go back to school and get her master’s and later PhD at NC State, we moved to the Triangle and I ended up getting a job at Duke. I remember the first year or two thinking, how do people do this? Everything moves so slow, the finances are bizarre. Then, a few years in, I was helping to lead a project with a doctor who was looking for a decision support tool to help give Hepatitis C patients an indication of what drug they should take based on their lab tests. We built a system that gave that information in near real time. The lab results would come in and then the physician could look at them and use our tool to make a decision. I saw the way that what we built was having an immediate impact on people. That wasn’t something I had been able to do in the corporate world. After that, I realized this was where I was supposed to be.

In college you studied chemical engineering. Do you think that has helped you thus far in your career?

I think the main thing it has done for me is eliminate some of the intimidation that people feel when discussing science and medicine. My training may not have progressed as far as our faculty, but I am certainly familiar with the vocabulary of science. And so that, coupled with the technology experience and knowledge I have, can help me meet a researcher halfway. Those complementary skills can lead to really fruitful partnerships.

You have a range of responsibilities, from the more technical things you mentioned to the familiar “Help Desk” functions. How do you plan to balance?

Obviously information, data management, and computing are essential to the operations of the School of Medicine or any organization. And part of that is keeping things running, what I call “commodity services.” Those are the services that people are more familiar with when it comes to technology: the maintenance of email, computers and mobile devices and all of those kinds of things. We have to do that and excel at delivering those services. The key, though, is to group our capabilities correctly and not just overload commodity services because that’s the area people interact with the most. So, yes, we want everyone to be able to access their email, but if a physician needs to build a mobile tool that allows him or her to collect and analyze data for a particular patient cohort, we need to be able to do that as well. The goal is to have the infrastructure to support everyone’s needs end-to-end.

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