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Arnold School of Public Health

UofSC alumnus uses Arnold School of Public Health education to shed light on rare diseases for the CDC

December 7, 2018 | Erin Bluvas,

The son of a physician, Yinding Wang was no stranger to medicine while growing up in the Guizhou province of Southwest China. One of his sisters became an obstetrician, another a family planning doctor. But Wang’s early exposure to healthcare gave him a different perspective.

“Gradually, I realized that each patient that came to visit doctors would have a medical history,” he says. “And I began to think about whether we had ways to integrate all of the patients’ medical history and analyze them to reach useful conclusions about disease and health risks, which would help more patients improve their lives.”

In 2010, Wang moved to the United States to earn a master of science in public health in biostatistics in the Arnold School’s epidemiology and biostatistics department, immediately followed by a Ph.D. in the same program. He worked closely with his advisor, associate professor Jiajia Zhang, to develop new estimation methods for complex statistical models and served as a research assistant for professor Suzanne McDermott, working with her on neurodevelopmental disorders and rare diseases projects.

“From Dr. Zhang, I gained the ability to find and solve problems and learned how to conduct statistical theoretical derivation and simulation study,” he says. “Working with Dr. McDermott, I learned how to apply statistical methods to real problems, collaborate with medical doctors, and interpret the statistical analysis results.”

Based on these experiences, Wang decided to continue this line of work after his 2016 graduation. First he joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an ORISE Fellow. Then he accepted a position there as a statistician.

At the nation’s health protection agency, Wang is part of an elite group that works to reveal the mysteries surrounding some of the least common, and often most baffling, health challenges Americans face.  As a member of the Rare Diseases and Health Outcomes team, Wang focuses on Fragile X Syndrome, Spina Bifida, and Muscular Dystrophy.

These conditions all affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States and are, therefore, classified as rare diseases under the Orphan Drug Act of 1983. These diseases affect so few patients, relative to other health conditions, that the sample size of data for each disease is very small.

“Because these sample sizes are so small, some statistical methods used for more common diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and so on, may not work,” Wang explains. “My main job right now is to develop and apply various statistical methods suitable for rare diseases to evaluate the cost of healthcare, risk factors and survival rates of rare diseases.”

Wang credits the biostatistics programs at the Arnold School for preparing him for this important role where he applies what he’s learned to improve the lives of those who experience rare diseases. His growing expertise in this area also led to his election as associate editor for biostatistics in the Journal of Child Neurology.

“We may accumulate lots of theories and knowledge of biostatistics during our Ph.D program, but practice is also very important,” he advises current and prospective students. “Sometimes, applying statistical methods to deal with the real problems is more important to improve patients’ lives, so if there’s one thing you should know if you’d like to work somewhere like the CDC, it’s work hard and practice more.”

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