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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Wanfang Zhang

August 2, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Growing up in China, Wanfang Zhang looked up to her cousin, the first of their generation to earn a doctoral degree. She had studied epidemiology and encouraged Zhang to pursue a career in public health.

Building on her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Shandong Agricultural University, Zhang decided to study biostatistics. She moved to the United States in 2017 and enrolled in the Master of Science in Public Health in Biostatistics and then the Ph.D. in Biostatistics program at the Arnold School.  

Zhang became a graduate research assistant in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and found a mentor in Bo Cai, a professor with expertise in Bayesian semiparametric modeling on longitudinal data, spatial data and survival data in the fields of epidemiology, environmental health sciences, child health and other areas. 

“Dr. Cai is always in his office and responds to students’ emails so quickly,” Zhang says. “He tried different research topics in his study time and finally decided to focus on Bayesian methods, which made him so erudite, and he always knows more efficient ways to solve tough statistics questions.”

One of the projects Zhang has worked on involves using machine-learning approaches to predict aphasia severity and specific language measures based on a multimodal neuroimaging dataset. Another project investigated the association of filling opioid prescriptions and healthcare service utilization among people with disabilities. They found that opioid prescription filling is associated with higher rates of emergency department visits and hospitalizations among individuals with inflammatory conditions and longstanding physical disabilities.

A third study examined the important role of family and caregivers in managing hypertension in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and reports of COVID-19 challenges related to medication refills. Other projects focused on tobacco control and pain relief.

This variety of topics and applications has contributed both breadth and depth to Zhang’s biostatistics expertise. Based on these experiences, she advises that current and prospective students explore as many areas as possible before making a final decision regarding a career focus.

After she completes her Arnold School degrees, Zhang will gain industry experience as a biostatistician. In the meantime, she plans to be involved in as many projects as possible.

“I want to gather more experience about research, be familiar with different kinds of data and learn how to deal with those kinds of data with best ways,” Zhang says. “I want to be prepared before my graduation, and I would like to use all those experiences in my work.”

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