Joe Marks: The Epic Journey from Healthcare to Special Effects


During a recent discussion with Dr. Joe Marks, who serves as Executive Director of the Center for Machine Learning and Healthcare at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I learned a great deal about the new frontiers being forged in healthcare—a timely subject.  We also explored Joe’s unique background and preference for interesting hobbies—and Hobbits (we’ll get to that Tolkienian tidbit later).


Joe is an impressive guest, to put it mildly. He’s been involved in applied computing and research in multiple industries, including doing work for Mitsubishi Electric and Disney, among others, and setting up research groups globally. He also has several degrees from the elite Harvard University (consisting of a Bachelor’s in Math, a Master’s of Science in Computer Science, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science).


Joe has worked hard to get to where he is, having grown up in the north side of Dublin, Ireland—the “tough side,” according to the Executive Director. The first in his family to even attend high school, Joe was already blazing a new trail. But then came an unorthodox hobby—or sport— choice: hammer throwing.


“I liked taking up crazy hobbies, and I had taken up the hobby of hammer throwing, the Olympic event. Now, I’m possibly the worst hammer thrower ever, and I don’t make that claim lightly. You need power, agility, strength, all of those things I don’t have—[including] coordination,” Joe admitted. But that didn’t deter him, as according to him, “There’s something very satisfying about throwing this 16-pound ball. I was throwing it half the distance of everybody else. But throwing that 100 feet is actually not trivial. And there’s that nice thud at the end of it.”

As it turns out, fortune—if not faculty—was in Joe’s favor regarding this new hobby. During a practice, he heard of America’s athletic scholarship programs for this lesser-known sport, including Harvard. Step by step, Joe was making his journey and succeeding at every turn. 


Speaking of epic journeys, we’ll now get to the inside scoop referenced at the beginning of this article: How does The Lord of the Rings come into play during a podcast interview about fast frontiers and ventures in healthcare? Granted, these seem like polar opposite realms, but the visionary behind the beloved Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson, had a surprising cameo of his own in Dr. Joe Marks’ life and journey recently.


According to Joe, it all began with COVID-19. The pandemic left him more open to exploring other areas of work as his focus shifted toward consulting (with startup launches being halted due to the pandemic). And then, “I got a phone call. You know, you get phone calls from recruiters every so often, and mostly [my answer is] ‘No, I’ve got a great thing going on.’ Finally, one got dangled in front of me that I’m thinking about.”


What was this offer he may not be able to refuse? You guessed it—it has something to do with Peter Jackson. The offer, according to Joe, is the role of CTO of Weta Digital, the enterprise (which specializes in special effects and the like) that is responsible for making the famous The Lord of the Rings and Avatar movies. The company has recently attracted some private equity and is planning to launch a studio in hopes that Joe will be at the helm, helping to steer that ship.


Joe sees this as a two-fold blessing, thinking it would be great fun and also a welcome reprieve from the healthcare industry that has long been a staple in his life. “I had an interview with the CEO. They’ve got two legends. Peter Jackson’s kind of their John Lasseter and Joe Letteri’s their Ed Capel. [I] had a great conversation with Letteri. Four Academy Awards, four BAFTAs, four VSs. He’s no slouch. And we just hit it off.”


I know I am excited to see what’s next for Joe. To hear more about Joe’s journey up to now and receive valuable advice and insights regarding entrepreneurship in the realm of healthcare, in particular, head on over to listen to the full interview.