HiDAV boot camp enables undergrads to explore career options and the growing impact of health informatics

July 26, 2018

The spread of influenza, adverse effects of opioid use for pain management, and the risk of opportunistic infections for HIV-positive patients – three issues that have significant implications for health care in North Carolina and beyond. Three issues that students participating in Carolina’s inaugural Health Informatics Data Analytics and Visualization (HiDAV) boot camp chose to tackle using data and information they extracted from research publications, census data, electronic health records, and other resources.

Kerani Davidson from NC Agricultural and State University shares information
from her group’s research project on factors that influence flu outbreaks.

“Honestly, every day I learned something new,” said Joseph Fonseca, a biology pre-med major from the Morehouse School of Medicine, Undergraduate Health Sciences Academy. “I was expecting to come in and do traditional research similar to what I had done previously, but this isn’t the wet lab that I’m used to. This is a whole host of information on data mining, text mining, visualization, and medical imaging that was completely new to me.”

The HiDAV boot camp is part of Project ENABLE, an initiative launched by the Carolina Health Informatics Program (CHIP) earlier this year to encourage students and professionals from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in science and technology fields to explore careers in biomedical and health informatics. ENABLE encouraged undergraduate students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to apply to the summer program, and the seven students selected for the 2018 cohort came from North Carolina Agricultural and State University (N.C. A&T), Johnson C. Smith University, Bennett College, and Morehouse College. Students spent seven weeks from late May to early July living and learning on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus.

“This gives students from HBCUs the opportunity to see a huge research campus like this one, which is really cool,” said Kashley Rishforth, who graduated in May from Johnson C. Smith University. “I know we might visit other campuses, but actually being a student on this campus is really an eye-opener. Learning new things, meeting a lot of people, networking, it’s a really a good chance.”

Classes and lectures focused on subjects including data visualization, classification algorithms, and programming languages. Guest lectures by researchers and medical professionals from across UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus introduced topics such as genomics and virtual reality applications for health care. Students also visited RTI, SAS, Optum, and UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center to see how the concepts they were studying are currently shaping research and medicine.

“We did a lot in six weeks,” said Dara Bradley, a rising senior from N.C. A&T. “It really required some good time management to attend the lectures, do the homework, work on your project, and go to meetings. You had to work fast and be creative, and learn to work collaboratively with people you’d never met before.”

Kashley Rishforth, a recent graduate of Johnson C. Smith University, and
Paris Parsons, and undergraduate student at NC Agricultural and State
University discuss their findings on the negative effects of opioid usage

The boot camp culminated with three teams of students presenting the results of their self-directed research projects. Each team discussed the methods they had used to collect and analyze their data, the challenges they had encountered, their findings, and the ways they or other researchers could proceed in the future. 

“I’ve been a research assistant before, but this was my own project and I really liked that a lot,” said Bradley, whose team studied how unemployment rates, environmental conditions, educational level, and other factors can affect the concentration of flu in certain areas. As a visualization, they created a heat map of flu outbreaks in North Carolina.

"Thanks to the dedication and hard work by ENABLE instructors and staff, the boot camp students were able to successfully demonstrate that they can select a problem, and utilizing appropriate methods, analyze diverse data sets to address critical scientific questions,” said Javed Mostafa, director of CHIP and a professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science.

Mostafa created and leads ENABLE, which stands for Extensible Network-Accessible Biomedical and Health Informatics Lifelong learning Environment. The program received $1.6 million grant from the United Health Foundation to host the HiDAV boot camp for three years and develop an online master’s degree program, as well as other online educational tools.

“The boot camp students’ enthusiasm and deep interest in health data analytics has further motivated us,” Mostafa said. “They have made a lasting impact on ENABLE and CHIP."

ENABLE Program Coordinator Shikha Yadav said feedback from this year’s students will help shape future boot camps, so they can be even more successful.

“It was interesting to see the students' journey throughout the boot camp, from learning the basics of health informatics to getting engrossed in their final projects,” Yadav said. “The students seemed keen to learn more in the future, and some are leaning toward a career in health informatics.”

Bradley, a biological engineering major concentrating in bioprocessing, said the boot camp had convinced her to consider health informatics as a career path. An added bonus, she said, was the chance to explore the town of Chapel Hill, which she found friendly and inviting.   

“I’m going to tell everyone at my school to apply [to the boot camp] next year,” she said.

Rishforth intends to pursue a career as a physician’s assistant, but believes what she learned in the boot camp will help her as she researches the best treatment options for patients and enable her to effectively partner with health informaticians in the future to promote better public health. 

Fonseca also remains committed to his plans for medical school, but sees great potential for utilizing what he learned when he returns to Morehouse in the fall. 

“Something that once took me a week, I can do before lunch in one day now,” he said. “Learning these skills and techniques are allowing us as students – as researchers – to do better and more accurate research at a faster rate.”