Research Horizons


Pestian Joins Oak Ridge National Laboratory as Joint Faculty

John Pestian, PhD, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and biomedical informatics at Cincinnati Children’s and the University of Cincinnati, has been appointed as a Joint Faculty Member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Pestian brings the perspective of an academic-based clinical scientist to ORNL, where scientists and engineers at partner universities from around the world collaborate to conduct research in a broad range of disciplines.

In partnership with ORNL collaborators, Pestian is developing novel artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and natural language processing methods that advance our understanding of mental illness research and veteran suicide prevention.

Using big data to solve big problems

Founded in 1943, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has led research on American energy and security for more than 75 years. The storied history of ORNL spans from developing nuclear reactor technology before World War II, to pioneering the field of environmental science research in the 1960s, to establishing the cutting-edge research and high-performance computing facilities of today.

Among ORNL’s most impactful accomplishments is the debut of Summit, the world’s smartest and most powerful supercomputer. Summit is capable of more than three billion billion mixed precision calculations per second, enabling scientific discoveries that were impossible just a few years ago.

As datasets become more and more complex, Summit allows researchers to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to accelerate the pace of discovery. Focus areas include astrophysics, materials, and even the complex field of mental health. In fact, Summit’s unique abilities as a supercomputer—combining massive amounts of clinical and genomic data—facilitate a whole new range of distinctly human-centered science.

Analyzing veteran DNA to predict suicide risk

Leveraging the power of Summit, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) partnered with ORNL to address an urgent epidemic—in 2016 alone, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide. How could the VA identify high-risk individuals and provide early medical intervention?

The Million Veteran Program (MVP) was established to learn new insights on mental illness prevention and treatment through genetic, clinical, and environmental research. With more than 750,000 veteran enrollees as of April 2019, MVP is the world’s largest genomic database linked to a health care system.

“We’re trying to understand the genetic, clinical, and thought phenotypes of those who die by suicide, and we are using the largest health care database and most powerful computers to do so,” says Pestian. “Most importantly, some of the world’s leading experts are devoted to slowing this epidemic of unnecessary death.”

As joint faculty, Pestian collaborates with the VA, ORNL, Los Alamos, and other national laboratories to develop natural language processing methods to identify specific suicide characteristics in the 750,000 genetic samples and 22 million patient records of the MVP initiative.

Through collaboration with ORNL’s Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, Pestian will also facilitate development of the Partnership for Artificial Intelligence and High-Performance Computing Research in Mental Illness between ORNL and other academic medical centers.

“It is through these new multi-disciplinary partnerships that we hope to solve many of today’s most complex problems,” says Pestian.

Learn more about Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Learn more about the Pestian Laboratory at