Gretchen Purcell Jackson, MD, PhD
Vice President & Chief Health and Science Officer | IBM Watson Health
Associate Professor | Vanderbilt University Medical Center
A lifelong commitment to healthcare and a love of science led Gretchen Purcell Jackson to carve out a successful career that perfectly joins her diverse interests.
"I was exposed to the cold end of the stethoscope early in life, and I was always going to be a surgeon to give back to the profession that extended my life," she said of being diagnosed with congenital heart disease as an infant and successfully undergoing corrective surgery at age 10 years.
During high school in Maine, she developed a deep interest in science and computer programming. Heading to Stanford for undergrad, Jackson majored in both biology and electrical engineering with an emphasis on software engineering. "I paid for school by programming and building databases as a consultant and teaching computer science," she recalled. "I discovered what is now called biomedical informatics, an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of medicine and computer science, and I earned a PhD in this field during medical school."
After completing her advanced degrees at Stanford, Jackson moved to North Carolina for residency at Duke University Health System, followed by a fellowship at Pittsburgh Children's Hospital. "I had always thought I would be a cardiac surgeon when I began medical school," Jackson said, "but I literally fell in love with pediatric surgery."
She relocated to Nashville in 2006 and joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical Center where she continues part-time as an associate professor of Surgery, Pediatrics and Biomedical Informatics. One piece of advice she often shares with the next-gen workforce is the value of flexibility. "I tell aspiring medical students that the job you sign up for when you begin medical training is going to be very different when you are done. Be prepared for change and to embrace it."
Recruited to IBM in 2018, Jackson followed her own advice and pursued an exciting new opportunity to help the healthcare industry make the best use of artificial intelligence and big data. However, she felt very strongly that she also keep practicing medicine. She noted, "I felt like it was really important to keep my finger on the pulse of medical practice."
With her dual role, Jackson is keenly aware of the power of actionable insights on outcomes. "Delivering effective advanced analytics and artificial intelligence for all stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem is a multidisciplinary team sport," she said of the dedicated group of clinicians and scientists who provide clinical, scientific, informatics and public health expertise for health-related business activities at Watson Health and across IBM. "We do together what none of us could do individually. I'm humbled by the energy and skill of my teammates each day." Having found her dream job, Jackson relishes the opportunity to help develop career pathways for her team members that marry their talents and interests.
A physician-scientist to her core, Jackson truly loves science. "In healthcare, scientific evidence is the language of trust," she pointed out. "Technologies," she continued, "are evolving very rapidly, but high quality science often takes time. It is a challenge to conduct science at the pace of health information technology evolution." Yet, Jackson said, such science is critical. "I believe it is a professional and ethical responsibility for all developers of artificial intelligence solutions in healthcare - both in academics and industry - to commit to doing the scientific studies to ensure these tools are safe and effective."
Leading by example at work, she is sharing her expertise on a national level, as well. Jackson currently serves as chair-elect of the American Medical Informatics Association Board of Directors and will step into the role of president and board chair in January 2022.
While work is spent in a fast-paced, ever-evolving environment, Jackson's downtime is decidedly more low-key. "I love spending time with my family and enjoying the outdoors," she said. The family of four includes husband Heath, Olivia, 18, and Brynn, 10. While home base is Kingston Springs, they also have a farm in the rural countryside. "We're working on learning to farm," Jackson said with a laugh. "We have cows and soon will have goats." The active family also enjoys sports - the girls play lacrosse, and Heath played football at Mississippi State. "We enjoy games for all our colleges," added the Stanford alum from deep inside SEC territory.