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The GW Hatchet

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By Ella Mitchell, Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

Health data science major educates students on emerging technologies

Students+sit+in+classes+within+the+Milken+Institute+School+of+Public+Health.
Katelyn Power | Photographer
Students sit in classes within the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Milken Institute School of Public Health faculty and students said the school’s new health data science major launched last fall tackles emerging health technologies amid a rise in data science jobs.

Milken officials began offering a Bachelor of Science degree in health data science in the fall and will expand the program next fall to offer a dual-degree option, according to the undergraduate and graduate program pages. Milken faculty and students said officials designed the curriculum to train undergraduates to collect biomedical, clinical and public health data using new technologies that research, health care and government agencies use to predict and improve public health outcomes.

Ali Rahnavard, the director of the health data science major and an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, said Milken officials wanted to offer the major to help students understand new data technology used to address issues like health disparities and disease prevention. He said teaching students about the technology in the context of biology and health policy prepares them for jobs in the health research community.

Data science jobs are projected to grow by 35 percent from 2022 to 2032 with roughly 17,700 new jobs expected each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The health data science major teaches students how to use data analytics, statistics and machine learning in the health industry according to the program overview. The overview states that graduates can contribute to health services planning, epidemic tracking and health promotion because they understand how to collect and interpret data in the context of public health challenges.

“This major in the undergrad level provides more practical skills so that the students who graduate from this major can do job opportunities that actually reflect the needs of the society in terms of health,” Rahnavard said.

Rahnavard said the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics decided to create the major in 2021 and formed a working group of six faculty to develop the curriculum in 2022. Milken officials and the dean approved the curriculum in July 2023. Rahnavard said he served as the chair of the working group and prioritized course offerings that give students an understanding of technology in different health fields.

The major requires core courses like Research Methods in Public Health, Introductory Biostatistics and Health Data Visualization, in addition to electives in selected areas of interest like biomedical engineering, statistics and biochemistry, according to the curriculum sheet.

“We are hoping that the graduated students can be the next generation of scientists who can start early on tackling those challenges we have in public health,” Rahnavard said.

Rahnavard said he is focused on recruiting current Milken students and students currently in high school, with five Milken students already planning to transfer into the major.

Rahnavard said his main role as director is to collect feedback from faculty and students on the curriculum and make necessary changes to ensure the courses align with the program’s original mission: to prepare graduates for jobs in the health data science sector or graduate school.

Rahnavard said the dual-degree program launching next fall combines the Bachelor of Science and master’s degree in data science to strengthen students’ skill sets and help them decide if they want to pursue a doctorate. He said officials will advertise the additional 27-credit offering to students enrolled in the undergraduate program.

The University also offers master’s and doctorate degrees in health data science.

Keith Crandall, the director of GW’s Computational Biology Institute and a professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, said the institute’s faculty helped develop the health data science curriculum with other biostatistics and bioinformatics faculty.

“I’m hoping it will be a popular program because it really is a nice extension of a wide variety of majors to an area that not only has great graduate opportunities but also great job opportunities,” Crandall said.

Crandall said the major exposes students to Python scripting and different types of statistical languages in the context of health — like R, a software for statistical computing, and SAS, a software for data analytics and analysis. He said these skills help students get hired in programming and data science jobs in the health industry.

“We really did a deep dive into bachelor’s level jobs in health data science and looked at what kind of skill sets employers were looking for,” Crandall said.

Jessica Faruque, a sophomore studying health data science, said the interdisciplinary offerings let students explore potential career paths related to public health and research like epidemiology, data analysis and data science.

Faruque said they are currently taking Introduction to Health Data Science and two electives for the health data science major: Introduction to Biostatistics and Introduction to Genomics.

“It was the perfect combination of things that I think I’m interested in,” Faruque said. “Career-wise I feel like it could go a long way because it’s a combination of data science, so I’ll know how to code, and public health so I’ll know how the data will affect the general public.”

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