Visionary gift awards funding for future AI research at UF College of Medicine

With artificial intelligence transforming nearly every sector of the economy, the University of Florida continues to make AI the centerpiece of a long-term initiative that combines world-class research infrastructure with leading-edge research efforts for a transformational approach to its curriculum.

In support of UF’s goal to integrate AI-focused education and research, longtime UF supporters Lou and Rosemary Oberndorf recently made a historic gift to the College of Medicine, establishing the Oberndorf College of Medicine AI Prize — the college’s first-ever AI-focused award. The Oberndorfs’ gift creates an endowed fund that will be disbursed in perpetuity as a monetary prize for second-, third- or fourth-year medical students working on AI-focused team research projects.

left to right: Azra Bihorac, M.D., M.S., FCCM, FASN, senior associate dean for research, UF College of Medicine; Rosemary Oberndorf; Lou Oberndorf; Colleen Koch, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., dean, UF College of Medicine; Patrick Tighe, M.D., M.S., associate dean for AI application and implementation, UF College of Medicine

“When I considered the potential power of AI that could be harnessed for health care and the innovative research happening in our academic health center at UF, I saw an opportunity to really advance the reputation and position of the university and to do good at the same time,” Lou Oberndorf said. “The real excitement came when we heard about the energy building among the medical students and the teams that were forming. That’s when the idea came to me — let’s do something to recognize them, reward them, motivate them to really do some exciting things.”

The gift was announced at the 13th annual UF College of Medicine Celebration of Research on Feb. 28. The annual, two-day event highlights pioneering scholarship across the College of Medicine. College leadership were in attendance, including Azra Bihorac, M.D., M.S., FCCM, FASN, senior associate dean for research at the UF College of Medicine.

“We’re very excited,” Bihorac said. “This generous gift from the Oberndorfs will enable advanced medical students to participate in leading-edge, real-world health research.”

AI tools are increasingly used for diagnostic, monitoring and prognostic applications in clinical medicine, with the expectation that future AI-enabled discoveries will be used to address real-word medical problems, thus informing enhancements in clinical practices to improve patients’ health. With an eye on preparing its students for the increasing use of AI tools, the College of Medicine has boldly embraced new approaches to research that will explore the transformative power of AI-enabled medicine.

Rosemary and Lou Oberndorf with Dean Colleen Koch
Rosemary and Lou Oberndorf with Dean Colleen Koch

“As artificial intelligence continues to increase the speed and volume of discovery in research, gifts like the Oberndorfs’ are essential,” said Colleen Koch, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., dean of the College of Medicine. “Because of this gift, our students will have further abilities to take full advantage of AI-enabled discoveries and apply them to real-life clinical situations that will improve patient outcomes.”

Bringing together current and future clinicians and other clinical leaders to explore AI-enabled discoveries, the College of Medicine recently concluded the inaugural AI2Heal Datathon on Jan. 14. A partnership between the UF College of Medicine Office of Research and the University of Florida Intelligent Critical Care Center, the AI2Heal Datathon provides teams of students with a three-month project development period and a unique funding opportunity for novel, collaborative and experiential multidisciplinary medical AI research.

An interactive catalyst grant award program, the datathon is designed to provide mentorship and resources to generate preliminary data that will inform extramural medical AI grant proposals. Clinical and basic science investigative teams work with leading AI researchers to develop accelerated medical AI applications using real-world datasets that are provided to the teams based on their research needs. Consisting of four teams — Clinical Text, Electronic Health Records, Medical Imaging and Multi-Omics — next year’s winning team will receive The Oberndorf College of Medicine AI Prize.

“Up to this point, programs supporting research opportunities have been primarily for students who are early in their medical education,” Bihorac said. “By focusing on second-, third- and fourth-year students, The Oberndorf College of Medicine AI Prize awards the work of students whose research can translate into larger grant proposals.”

Student feedback from the first datathon was positive, with team members enthusiastic about the collaboration.

“Participating in the datathon was an incredible opportunity to apply my skills and knowledge to the health care industry,” said Sai Annanya Sree Vedala., who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. “Collaborating with my team allowed me to tackle a challenging problem that involved real-world data analysis. The support from my mentor and the resources provided transformed the entire journey into an exponential learning experience. Moreover, it gave me the opportunity to present my first-ever scientific research poster at the College of Medicine Celebration of Research.”

Rosemary and Lou Oberndorf sign their gift agreement
Rosemary and Lou Oberndorf sign their gift agreement establishing the Lou and Rosemary Oberndorf College of Medicine AI Prize

Supporting students like Vedala is something the Oberndorfs hope to continue through their gift — building on a well-documented philanthropic legacy aimed at helping students succeed. Since 1994, the Oberndorfs have given to a variety of areas across the university, including infrastructure, professorships and scholarships. Their recent Giving Day challenge raised nearly $30,000 for the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program, which supports low-income students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Most notably for the College of Medicine, the Oberndorfs made a substantial gift in 2016 to establish the Louis H. Oberndorf Experiential Learning Theatre in the George T. Harrell, M.D., Medical Education Building. The state-of-the-art space offers dozens of configurations and hundreds of scenarios, allowing students and professionals to learn complicated, high-risk skills through simulation technology. With previous contributions focused on education and patient care, and this latest gift to support AI-focused research, the Oberndorfs’ philanthropic legacy can be felt throughout the College of Medicine.

Lou Oberndorf spoke passionately about his affinity for UF and said hopes this gift will help drive the important discovery already happening at the college. “I feel that the academic health center here at UF is unique — certainly within the United States,” Oberndorf said. “There’s already incredible research happening here that could be accelerated by exploring new AI applications. I would like to recognize the brightest students at UF and get them excited for that new research.”