Global Health and Data at Georgetown

Written by Tilde Jaques, MDI Journalism Intern

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists, researchers, policymakers, and experts across disciplines have looked for ways to better understand and track global health and disease. Data science is at the forefront of this work. As Professor Heidi Elmendorf, an Associate Professor in Georgetown’s Department of Biology, summarizes, “the challenges in the field of global health are – by definition – challenges at scale, and solutions will need to be informed by sophisticated analyses of large-scale data.”

Much of what we know about global health and epidemics comes from organizations such as the World Health Organization and the National Institute of Health, which collect data from sample populations to quantify diseases and other health issues. Professors across the Georgetown community are also doing the same, including a number of faculty at the Massive Data Institute (MDI). 

For example, Dr. Shweta Bansal, a professor in the Department of Biology and MDI faculty, works at the intersection of data and global health. Her research uses large scale datasets to understand disease dynamics to inform public health decision making. One of Bansal’s recent research publications, titled “Spatial Distribution and Determinants of Childhood Vaccination Refusal in the United States”, uses an administrative healthcare dataset to examine US vaccine refusal levels for patients under five years. This work has great potential to inform health public policy in the future.  

Dr. Tom DeLeire, a Distinguished Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy and MDI faculty, has been researching the relationship between prenatal and delivery care and patient demographics. This project, titled “Continuity between Prenatal and Labor and Delivery Care Serving a High-Risk Urban Population,” focuses specifically on data from MedStar Health’s Safe Babies Safe Moms (SBSM) program, and aims to “improve perinatal outcomes in Washington DC.” Dr. DeLeire’s research has the potential to use data management to shape procedures regarding prenatal and delivery care in hospitals, improving the quality of care for mothers across DC. 

Professor Maria Alva, Assistant Professor in the School of Health and MDI faculty, has also been working on research related to demographic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. A paper she published in December 2022 highlights her methodology of using data to track death rates across demographics, and reveals sociological inequalities in the healthcare system specifically related to COVID-19. Alva’s research remains extremely relevant, as CDC tracking of COVID-19 has become less and less widespread. 

Given this strong research focus at MDI, this year’s Spotlight Lecture will be in the area of global health. On Thursday, February 22, MDI will host Dr. Vittoria Colizza, Head of Research at INSERM & Sorbonne Université, to speak about the importance of data and modeling for pandemic responses. 

Colizza works at the Pierre Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health and is an expert on mathematical and computational modeling to evaluate the risks of epidemics and pandemics. Colizza is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Georgetown’s Department of Biology, Global Health Institute, and here at MDI. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Colizza worked on applying data models to track the pandemic. She says that while these models had been used before, “we used them in a different way, to track individuals by cell phone and follow their flow of movements from one area to another.” This process helped to track the spread of the disease and ultimately saved lives. 

Dr. Colizza’s application of data models to the COVID-19 pandemic had important policy implications. For example, she says, when authorities wanted to know more about the implications of closing schools during a second phase of the pandemic, she worked on models to “test and develop protocols to reduce our spread, but, at the same time, keep schools open.” 

Dr. Colizza will be speaking at the Copley Formal Lounge at 2:30 pm on Thursday, February 22. Register to attend here.

Spotlight Lecture