Justin Starren describes himself as a “graying father of two” – he’s 48 – but he also happens to be one of the world’s leading experts in the field of biomedical informatics, the science of information and information systems as it applies to health care.
And he lives in Marshfield, a city of around 20,000 that has quietly become home to one of the nation’s leading medical care and research facilities, where cutting-edge work in epidemiology, farm medicine, clinical research, human genetics and informatics is performed every day.
Marshfield now takes its place among Wisconsin’s “3 M’s” – three cities in the state known as biomedical research hot spots, the other two being its much bigger southern neighbors, Milwaukee and Madison.
Committed to Development
Starren explains that he moved here from Columbia University in New York City a little over a year ago because “there are only a handful of places in the entire country that are committed to development of an electronic health record, and most places buy them from vendors, and if you’re a researcher like me,” working in those places “would be kind of like being an automotive designer working in a car lot.”
Besides the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation’s Biomedical Informatics Research Center – which Starren now directs – “there are only three other places in the entire country” engaged in such work: Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. “What I’ve noticed is that there is what I’d call a reverse snobbery in the Midwest,” he says, “especially in Marshfield, and the assumption that if it happens in Marshfield, it can’t be very important. But a lot of the research at the Clinic is absolutely cutting edge.”
“The one thing that this Clinic does very poorly is brag,” he says. “I jokingly say, that’s why they hired a New Yorker.”
Indeed, if it takes a little New York chutzpah to state the obvious, then so be it, but Marshfield is, in fact, home to a remarkable research and medical facility – one that employs 7,500 people in centers around the state and recently opened the $40 million Laird Center for Medical Research, named after former congressman and U.S. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird. The Marshfield Clinic’s leadership, resources and drive to advance and develop biotechnology in the region has created a dynamic environment where new businesses in the field are beginning to emerge, such as Prevention Genetics.
That company is headed by one of the stellar figures in genetic medicine, Dr. Jim Weber. Under his leadership, the Mammalian Genotyping Service at Marshfield Clinic recently completed a “linkage map” of disease-causing genes. Weber says that he founded the company here “because Marshfield has been my home for the last 21 years, and because many of our key employees live in Marshfield or surrounding communities.
Great Place to Live
“For many years now, I’ve considered Marshfield one of the best places in the country to live and work, and the advantages of the community include relatively low costs of living, especially housing, excellent schools, low crime, noise, traffic and pollution, and an abundance of college-educated, motivated employees with a strong work ethic.”
“For a biotech company, I think the presence of the Marshfield Clinic and Saint Joseph’s Hospital are also attractive features. These institutions provide employment for spouses of Prevention Genetics employees. The Clinic also provides library and seminar facilities.”
Dr. Douglas Reding, Vice President of the Marshfield Clinic – which also incorporates a hospital system, medical school and a statewide HMO – explains that it was founded in 1916 by a group of six doctors under the then-revolutionary notion that if one of them was absent, another could cover. This seminal “group practice” was founded here simply because Marshfield was at the nexus of north/south and east/west railroad crossings – allowing doctors to travel easily to other parts of the state. From that core philosophy sprouted this one: That doctors also needed research to enrich, and advance, their work. “In the late ’50s,” he says, “physicians recognized that to stay current, you had to be knowledgeable about research,” which became “an important aspect to the mission as well as the culture.”
A small research foundation was thus established, which has now grown into one of the country’s largest and most influential medical research centers, encompassing the Marshfield Epidemiologic Research Center, the Center for Human Genetics, the Biomedical Informatics Research Center and the Clinical Research Center.
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