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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Xinling (Claire) Xu

January 4, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, 

“Science itself cannot benefit people directly,” says Xinling (Claire) Xu.“It has to be applied to a human-related area.” She was well on her way to becoming a mathematics whiz when she reached this epiphany during her master’s program—a realization that shifted her course to public health.

After earning an undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics at Dalian University of Technology in her native China, Xu came to the United States in 2011 and was immersed in her Master of Science in Statistics program at the University of Minnesota when she resolved to ensure her career would have an impact. “Public health is obviously a very important human-related field, and statistics can help summarize scientific results,” she says. “That’s why I chose biostatistics.”

Xu chose the University of South Carolina because of the Arnold School’s reputation as an excellent school. “Besides the great reputation of our school, the director and staff in the epidemiology and biostatistics department were very helpful,” she says. “I got some offers from other PhD programs back then, but the people here were the most helpful and made it so easy for me to relocate from Minnesota to Columbia.”

Now in the third year of her doctoral program in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Xu is very happy with her decision to join the Arnold School. “Our department works with many government agencies, such as the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” she says. “Students have great opportunities to participate in real-life, hands-on research.”

Her research interests have evolved since she arrived, and she is currently developing a method for variable selection under collinearity. Xu’s collaborative work with faculty and other students has led to several scholarly papers under various stages of preparation and a presentation at the Annual Conference of the European Survey Research Association in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Although Xu has benefited from her interactions with numerous faculty members during her time at the Arnold School, three stand out in particular. Associate Professors James Hardin and Bo Cai serve as her dissertation advisors. “Dr. Hardin gives me guidance on how to write manuscripts for journals and give presentations as well as helping me with other academic-related problems as well,” Xu says. “He is willing to help students build up their careers, and he is very generous in helping students.”

She is grateful to Cai for guiding her in the study of nonparametric Bayesian methods—a completely new area for Xu. “Dr. Cai inspired me to look further into clustering methods in biostatistics,” she says. “Both of my dissertation professors are very patient and willing to discuss any new ideas that I have and provide constructive suggestions.”

Professor Suzanne McDermott is also an important mentor for Xu. “Dr. McDermott includes me in many projects and provides great opportunities for me to collaborate with professionals in public health,” she says. “She showed me what the working style of an experienced epidemiologist should be and she is a role model for me.”

With such well-rounded support from her mentors and a strong foundation through her program, Xu plans to graduate in May 2017 and pursue a position working on a research team at an industrial company or with a medical group to gain some experience. “To be able to make a contribution to health-related development, which can benefit people, sounds pretty good to me,” she says.