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Staff Q&A: Ngan MacDonald, I.AIM

Ngan MacDonald

Ngan MacDonald, chief of Data Operations at the Institute for Augmented Intelligence in Medicine (I.AIM), helps match investigators with an idea to the data and resources they need to realize research and other projects.

Read a Q&A with MacDonald below.

Where are you originally from?  

I'm originally from Vietnam. My family lived in Saigon and I was born in the midst of the Vietnam War. We were one of the "boat people" and made our way across the South China Sea to the Philippines. We eventually got accepted into the US in 1980 after 9 months at the refugee camp. My aunt lived in Elgin, a suburb of Chicago, so we came here.

What is your educational background?

I am an NU Alum! I got my bachelor's from Northwestern in 1996. Back then, it was a B.S. from the School of Speech. I didn't really know what I wanted to do so I accepted a job in Human Resources. I worked for a few years and realized that I really liked the technology field, so I went back to school at DePaul for my master’s in information systems.

Please tell us about your professional background.

After graduate school, I spent five years in consulting helping clients build out their business intelligence solutions. This was everything from installing databases, integrating data to creating reports to answer business questions. When I had my first child, the travel got too much, so I went to Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), a member of the Blue Cross Blue Shield System. At HCSC, I helped to create the Information Governance Program and was responsible for a team of information analysts.

The consulting world lured me back and I spent four years doing management consulting for payers, providers and software vendors before I was recruited back to the Blue Cross Blue Shield System to be the vice president for Enterprise Data Solutions.

Why do you enjoy working at Northwestern?

Working at NU is an entirely different experience than anywhere else I've been. I.AIM was launched right before all the COVID lockdowns and I was the first full-time employee. It is a unique blend of a startup, but inside the confines of a historic institution. Additionally, I really love working on my passion project. This isn't just a paycheck, it's really a lifelong goal I have had of liberating data for healthcare.

How do you help scientists at the medical school?

We are the matchmakers and connectors of people, data and tools. We know that when a researcher has an idea, rarely do they also have access to talent and data and tools to be able to execute on that idea. We help to bridge across the university, the medical school and the hospital to find matches between what people need and what others know how to do.

We are building out a health data “Gymnasium” that responsibly connects data sets, people and tools. The thing about work in this area is that rarely is there easy access to data and when you do get access, you lack the knowledge for how that data should and can be used. The Health Data Gymnasium makes the data available, connects to tools and also has what I call “data sherpas” to help make sense of the data.

What is your favorite part of the job?

I love talking to people and so being an ambassador to what we are doing comes naturally. While my prior jobs have definitely had impact, I feel like my role here at Northwestern, it is more direct. It's much more gratifying to see how we help researchers and students right now than seeing how my data strategy helped a company recoup $1B three years down the road.

What exciting projects are you working on?

In addition to the Health Data Gymnasium that I talked about above, we are also working on the second year of the AI Bowl. This year, we are broadening participation and rebranding it the 3rd Coast Augmented Intelligence for Health Bowl. There are 5 schools currently on the steering committee and two additional schools who have committed to fielding a team. We will be opening up the applications in May and they will be due August 1. I'm excited to see what the teams come up with!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to bake and sew, which I had a lot of time to do during the pandemic. I also have 3 kids who are 17, 15 and 10. We do a lot of camping and hiking with them. Someday they will be gone and my husband and I plan to trade the house in for a trailer and travel across t