Everyday Remarkable: Behind the Scenes with Software Development and Informatics Director Adam Halstead, MS

Adam Halstead, MS

An office building on Midvale Boulevard is the workplace home of a small team of software developers, bioinformatics experts, and database administrators. Led by Adam Halstead, MS, the Software Development and Informatics Services group provides technical applications to advance the administrative, educational, and research missions of the Department of Medicine. 

“My team helps acquire, manage, and analyze data from researchers and administrators. We’re focused on providing robust software solutions,” said Halstead. 

The projects that the team works on vary tremendously. On any given day, they may be optimizing a laboratory information management system (LIMS) for managing metadata associated with biological samples, or creating a platform for financial communications and monitoring, or contributing a technical section for a grant proposal that delves into specific bioinformatic analysis techniques. 

The mix of opportunities is satisfying to Halstead, who came to software development after initially training in chemistry. 

“I love creating and problem solving, and the projects I work on continuously present new and exciting challenges to tackle,” he said. “Because the projects are aligned with the department's overarching mission to advance patient health, it gives me a very clear sense of my work's purpose.”

Halstead was drawn to bioinformatics after spending several years as chief technology officer in an e-learning startup company in Montreal, Canada. During the course of his work as he met educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and scientists during the Human Genome Project era, he saw a need for software applications to help drive medical research and clinical practice forward. 

Inspired, he completed a distance-learning master’s of science degree in Digital Biology offered by Manchester University. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Health Informatics through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

“Sitting at intersection of biology, medical and computer science, medical informatics is a rapidly evolving field and helping to revolutionize healthcare, making it an exciting time to be working in the field,” said Halstead. 

His role as team director also draws on his management skills. The group uses techniques such as KANBAN methodology and Agile methodology for project management. Each approach focuses on creating tools through pragmatic, iterative rounds of development cycles, emphasizing a high level of communication with internal clients. 

“We’re continuously talking with the stakeholders about what their needs are,” said Halstead. 
The dual creative and analytical aspects of the work echoes his long-standing interests in conceptual tinkering. “When I was a kid, I got fascinated with science and computing, partly through my dad who was a research chemist. He used to bring back an Apple II from the office for some weekends. I mostly played games like Lemonade Stand and a Star Trek game, and later on I started to program my own games,” said Halstead.

Today, he views bioinformatics and software development as playing a fundamental role in hypothesis generation and experimental analysis, as well as the day-to-day “applied experiment” of improving the administrative operations of a department. 

“I'm focused on data — how best to annotate and store it in a robust and accessible manner. Then once we have a well-curated dataset, to build robust software tools around the data, providing researchers with ways to query and visualize it. The goal is to help transform research data into knowledge and hopefully lead to new discoveries,” said Halstead. 

For others who might be interested in the profession, Halstead advises combining a strong theoretical background in software development and informatics with a practical approach to problem-solving and creating solutions. 

And he is quick to point out how deeply rewarding the work can be.

“The most satisfying part for me is delivering a project that positively impacts research, helping other teams better pursue their goals through understanding their data.” 

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in our Everyday Remarkable series, which tells the stories of staff members within the Department of Medicine. Nearly 350 staff members on our team are dedicated to educating the next generation of physicians, advancing health, facilitating and conducting life-changing research, and ensuring the smooth operation of the largest academic department in the UW System. We’ll go behind the scenes with staff to give Vital Signs readers a glimpse into the roles, responsibilities, challenges, and joys that they encounter every day. Have a suggestion for a person or job that you think we should cover? Contact us.