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Arnold School of Public Health

Doctoral students Kelsey Day and Qian Huang selected as inaugural Health GIS Scholars by Big Data Health Science Center

February 8, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

The UofSC Excellence Initiative’s 2019 decision to fund the Big Data Health Science Center kicked off a flurry of activity that quickly became an interdisciplinary collaboration across the UofSC campus. Led by co-principal investigators and Arnold School faculty Xiaoming Li (Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior) and Bankole Olatosi (Department of Health Services Policy and Management), the Center conducts innovative research (e.g., a recent $1.25 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and another from the NSF to conduct COVID-19 research), professional development/academic training and service to community and industry.

Within the Big Data Health Science Center, the Geospatial Core engages in cutting-edge geospatial research and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) science. They also provide training in the use of GIS, spatial analytics and other technologies – recently launching the Health GIS Scholars Program to recognize and support students who demonstrate interest, potential and/or experience in GIS and health research. As the 2021 recipients of this award, doctoral students Kelsey Day and Qian Huang, will receive $2,500 to conduct their own research projects and support their professional development. They will participate Geospatial Core meetings and receive guidance and mentorship from geospatial core faculty.

“With this being our first year of the Health GIS Scholars Program, we were thrilled to see the level of enthusiasm among the students who applied,” says Jan Eberth, associate professor of epidemiology and director of the Geospatial Core. “Through their projects, you can see the breadth and importance of the geospatial research happening across UofSC’s campus. The Geospatial Core will continue to provide an avenue for mentoring and technical training with our awardees, and the greater UofSC community.”

Kelsey Day

Day, a student in the Ph.D. in Exercise Science program (recently ranked No. 1 in the nation for the second five-year term in a row), became interested in GIS through an introductory course offered by the Arnold School. The Norman J. Arnold Doctoral Fellow also has interests in aging research (she has been a Graduate Scholar in Aging Research) and environmental factors that influence physical activity. She is a member of UofSC’s Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program (funded by a National Institutes of Health T-32 predoctoral grant), where she receives interdisciplinary training designed to prepare the next generation of behavioral scientists.

Working with mentor and exercise science professor Sara Wilcox, Day serves as a graduate research assistant for the UofSC Prevention Research Center that Wilcox directs. In particular, she contributes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded Faith, Activity, and Nutrition (FAN) Program. FAN, which partners with churches to improve physical activity and healthy eating among members, is currently conducting a national study for delivering the program in an online format.

Day’s project as a Health GIS Scholar will involve developing a walkability index to better assess the external environments – including community access – surrounding churches that adopt the FAN program. She will use objective spatial measurements to develop the walkability index and examine whether index scores vary by race, socioeconomic status and rural/urban residence.

“Kelsey plans to incorporate GIS into her dissertation project, and the Health GIS Scholars Program will provide her with the opportunity to continue to apply and advance these skills to prepare her for this work,” says Wilcox, “I know that the project she has proposed for this program will contribute to the literature, where very little of this work has been done in relation to faith-based organizations.”

Qian Huang

A Ph.D. student in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Geography, Huang first became interested in GIS during an internship with city government for her Master of Public Administration program. Along with other GIS applications, she mapped access to healthcare services and analyzed residents’ health behaviors. These experiences sparked Huang’s interest in GIS – subsequently leading her to complete a graduate certificate in the subject and earn a second master’s degree in geography. After studying mosquito composition diversity and distribution before and after Hurricane Irma, she also developed a passion for disaster and health research. 

As a doctoral student, Huang works in her College’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute and serves as a graduate research assistant with the School of Medicine’s Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare. She was recently awarded a fellowship with Earth Science Information Partners Community Program – Disaster Lifecycle Cluster. Through her various roles, Huang has been involved in several activities related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as collecting mortality data for the UNIC-CMOR Research Consortium global COVID-19 project.

Huang’s Health GIS Scholars study will build on a larger project led by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, which is currently using funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research to examine disparities in response, impact and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Huang will use GIS to examine the spatial and temporal diffusion of COVID-19 cases and their interactions with natural hazards (e.g., hurricanes, flooding, wildfires) and the urban-rural differences in COVID-19 case fatality. 

“I am very excited by her project and its likely intellectual and methodological contribution to the field and to policy and practice in emergency management and public health preparedness,” says Huang’s mentor and Geospatial Core Member Susan Cutter, a Carolina Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geography and director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute.


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