As a leader among psychologists, my colleague Richard H. Wexler wanted to see psychology become a science with the rigorous methodology of proof common to all sciences, meaning that it was data-based and methodical in testing theories. In this way it could add value to society and organizations, including the organizations he served as an organizational psychologist over many years. During the last years of his life, he looked for answers to his illness which in the end overcame him, but not after a long fight.

Reflecting Richard’s interest in medical treatment, I think it is fitting, as a friend and colleague, that I begin a conversation about Big Data with a true story (which you may recall) about the use of Big Data in the field of medicine by Frances Kelsey who passed away last month. She used big medical data to save thousands of people from a crippling disability.

Her obituary appeared in the New York Times on August 7, 2015 and read in part: “In July of 1962, president John F. Kennedy and the American press began praising their heroine, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey, who with the help of a chemist and pharmacologist, prevented the approval of a new sedative within the United States despite pressure from a pharmaceutical company and FDA supervisors. Kelsey felt the application for Kevadon contained incomplete and insufficient data on its safety and effectiveness.

Among her concerns was the lack of data indicating whether the drug could cross the placenta, which provides nourishment to a developing fetus.”

“Dr. Kelsey, who died on Friday at the age of 101, became a 20th-century American heroine for her role in the thalidomide case, celebrated not only for her vigilance, which spared the United States from widespread birth deformities, but also for giving rise to modern laws regulating pharmaceuticals.”

One of the most valuable things I have learned during my 40 years practicing Industrial/Organizational Psychology is to appreciate how our competencies; our knowledge, skills and attributes, can help to explain our behaviors. Competencies are useful in predicting who will resist taking shortcuts and who will cave in under pressure.

We can appreciate in hind-sight that Dr. Kelsey had the right competencies for her job and situation, including the technical knowledge of submission approval requirements and data analysis, team building, communication, perseverance, willingness to challenge results of others, and resistance to pressure.

What competencies do you glean from this story? What is it worth to us when today’s FDA reviewers, pharmaceutical clinical and medical practitioners had the right competencies?

Here’s a challenge: propose to research what you would do or sponsor to identify the competencies needed to effectively use Big Data in today’s drug approval process, or for other purposes.

Richard Wexler would push us to go further. Drawing on hours of conversations, he and I had about how to make the contributions of 21st century psychologists relevant today and tomorrow, I can imagine him asking about what individual patients might do to ensure they were getting the best drugs and treatment?

With this in mind, let me call your attention to an article from the March 31, 2015 New York Times and then ask you to respond to several questions.

This article describes how Steven Keating, a 26 year old doctoral student at MIT’s Media Lab, helped his physicians save his life by using Big Data.

The article raises many questions that we, as psychologists, psychology students, or interested observers, may want to answer. Let me pose a few:

  • What competencies enabled Steven Keating to succeed?
  • Are these competencies unique to his level of intelligence and field of study?
  • Can they be learned? How would you propose to answer through research?
  • Is “OpenNotes” a good idea? What research would you propose of support to prove its value?

The overarching question now is can big data make you healthy?