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USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute

USC GIST Alumna Applies Spatial Science to Cancer Research

A community’s environment can have an enormous impact on public health. Local risk factors — like poor air quality or a contaminated water supply — affect the well-being of residents, and the accessibility of care may determine whether individuals become aware of the dangers early enough. These connections make geospatial data a powerful means for deepening our understanding of health issues.

University of Southern California M.S. in Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) alumna Trang VoPham is one researcher who works at the intersection of the spatial sciences and medicine. She is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Public Health Sciences Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) and an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health. Under a grant from the National Institutes of Health, she uses geographic information systems (GIS) to discover new insights into the correlation between environmental pollution and cancer.

In a conversation with Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Thomas Lynch, VoPham discussed why GIS is so valuable for understanding epidemiologies and taking proactive steps to address them. View the full video of their discussion below:

VoPham holds a Master of Public Health and a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh, and she was a postdoctoral fellow in cancer epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. But she brings a unique combination of skills to her research, viewing epidemiology from a geohealth perspective.

While attending USC, VoPham won the 2014 UNIGIS Academic Excellence Prize for her thesis, in which she investigated the health outcomes of pesticide exposure through remote sensing data and other spatial information like census tracts and ZIP codes. Now, she uses geospatial methods to build environmental exposure models and in her epidemiologic studies.

“Geospatial science is a really valuable way to identify and make sense of patterns in exposures and diseases across space,” VoPham explained.

She specified three primary applications for GIS tools:

  • Mapping to visualize patterns in data, generate hypotheses and identify geographic disparities
  • Modeling to represent information such as environmental or socioeconomic data
  • Forming data linkages between the findings from multiple epidemiological studies to answer a research question

Specifically, VoPham has embarked on a five-year project focused on illuminating a possible link between a common air pollutant and liver disease and cancer. With geocoded information from the electronic health records of Veterans Affairs patients, she plans to learn how those dangers might vary depending on geography as well as race, ethnicity and sex.

VoPham’s work demonstrates how the spatial sciences provide vital perspectives on epidemiology, public health and many other fields. GIST techniques and tools enable experts to delve into a variety of complex issues and solve a wide range of problems.

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